Over the last few years, there has been a decrease of youth unemployment in Bulgaria. According to Eurostat, youth unemployment in the country was 8.6% in January 2023, down from 13.6% in January 2022. Yet, the issue of young people who are not in employment, education or training (NEETs) continues to be a challenge and concern, given Bulgaria’s dramatic need for skilled labor force. According to OECD, NEET rates in Bulgaria in 2020 were among the highest in the EU at 18% against a European average of 14%.
Reaching and activating NEET youth on the job market is one of the priorities of the National Employment Agency of Bulgaria, one of the main stakeholders implementing various youth employment initiatives and programs. In its estimation, a number of cultural and social traits account for the high NEET rates among Bulgarian youth, such as: the late age at which young people leave their parents' households; the generally low degree of labor force mobility; and the weak social and economic development of some regions in the country. These traits have been persistent over time, and are a reason for the continously high number of NEETs in the country. Eurostat data on the composition of NEET youth in Bulgaria reveal that a large proportion of NEETs are members of vulnerable or socially disadvantaged groups, including women, ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. In 2021, the rate of female NEETs was 20.9% and that of male - 14.5%.
The key tools used by the Government of Bulgaria to tackle the problem of unemployment, including among young people, have been hiring subsidies and education and training. Most interventions providing employment subsidies aim at securing full-time employment for a period of 3 to 6 months; subsidies to employers hiring long-term unemployed persons are provided for a period of up to 12 months. There have been few initiatives and programs providing subsidies for part-time employment. In regard to work experience placements, in most cases, subsidies are used in order to encourage employers to create opportunities for internships and apprenticeships. There are a number of specific measures, initiatives and programs designed by policymakers to provide opportunities and increase employability, as well as to activate and help young people find suitable jobs, including, among others, the Career Start Program, the Youth Employment Program in the Field of Culture, the New Opportunities for Youth Employment Project, the National Employment and Training Program for People with Permanent Disabilities, the National Program 'Activation of Inactive Persons', Training and Employment Program for Long-term Unemployed Persons, etc.
There are institutional and donor evaluations of such initiatives and programs even though as a whole there is no consistency in the extent to which they can count as real evaluations making solid qualitative conclusions based on various types of data. Initiatives funded directly through the state budget are marked by evaluations which provide more limited conclusions on quality and effectiveness. In contrast, interventions funded by the European Social Fund along the lines of the Operational Program Human Resources Development (OP HRD) are marked by greater depth. Еvaluations funded under the Erasmus+ Program of the European Commission, were inconsistent, relatively rare and at times of questionable objectivity. Тhese evaluations are critical for gaining institutional learning experience and for the respective initiative sustainability, transparency, and future funding mobilization.
In this respect CSD recently evaluated the Career Star Program - an employment initiative in Bulgaria which ranks high within the cluster of similar initiatives. The Career Start Program is an annual initiative that has been operational since 2003. The initiative addresses the difficulties young university graduates (some of them being technically NEETs) face to find jobs that are in line with their knowledge and skills due to the lack of work experience. The target group of the Career Start Program are young people up to 29 years of age, university graduates with no work experience, who are registered at labor offices (under the umbrealla of the National Employment Agency). The young people under the program are given the opportunity to be employed and gain professional experience in the Bulgarian public administration (national, regional, local levels) for the period of twelve months. Even though the program has been generally sustainable, in the last couple of years there has been a decreasing interest in it among potential beneficiaries evident by a decreasing number of applicants and youth recruited under the program. Three major reasons for this trend emerge: 1) low monthly pay; 2) prolonged application and selection procedure; and 3) a general lack of information campaigns or other promotional activities to popularize and make the program more visible. Policy recommendations for streamlining the program can address these challenges. To reverse the trend of decreasing interest in the program, policymakers should:
- Consider increasing the monthly salary under the program to at least BGN 1,000;
- Work towards shortening the application and selection procedure under the program at all levels of inter-institutional and institution-beneficiary interactions;
- Design and implement an annual information campaign about the program which is to be devised and launched annually prior to the start of the application process. Such an effort should be carried out in collaboration with media and higher education institutions (through their career centers).
This blog is based on findings from research conducted by CSD as part of the ‘Lost Millennials – Transnational Research Network for the Evalution of Initiatives Targeting 25 + NEETs’ project funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA and Norway Grants Fund for Youth Employment.