Addressing the world's labour pains

12 Feb 13
Few people understand the challenges of unemployment as well as Angeles Bermudez-Svankvist. Here, she tells Susanne Tillqvist about her dual roles and what’s needed to get the world working again

By Susanne Tillqvist | 12 February 2013

Few people understand the challenges of unemployment as well as Angeles Bermudez-Svankvist. As head of Sweden’s National Employment Agency and the worldwide organization of labor market agencies, she has global oversight of a problem that leaves no country untouched. Here, she tells Susanne Tillqvist about her dual roles and what’s needed to get the world working again

A few minutes with Angeles Bermudez-Svankvist is just what’s needed to brighten up a gray, wintry day in Stockholm. She’s running a little late for her interview — a testament, perhaps, to the juggling of roles as Director-General of Sweden’s National Employment Agency (Arbetsförmedlingen) and President of the worldwide organization of labor market agencies, WAPES. Her zeal for the corresponding mission of both these organizations — to help reduce unemployment — is instantly evident.

“This is my passion,” she says. “It’s not easy, and can be frustrating at times, but what a privilege to be at the center of this debate — especially now, at this time in global economic history.” Indeed, few can doubt the importance of her work.

Of the many and varied repercussions of the 2008–09 financial crisis, one that has rippled across borders to impact both developed and developing economies, has been surging unemployment. Over the last few years, the number of people estimated to be out of work has grown to total more than 200 million, which is an increase of 27 million since the beginning of the crisis. And even rapid-growth economies have not proved immune; although some regions have enjoyed robust economic expansion, this hasn’t led to a greater increase in employment.

Take the Middle East and North Africa, for example. Although the region enjoys many strengths — natural resources and substantial budget surpluses among oil exporters, for example — high unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, remains a key problem. The primary reason for this is a skills mismatch. Most foreign companies setting up base in the region prefer to employ immigrant labor due to a shortage of a skilled workforce. Reducing this skills mismatch between nationals and non-nationals is, therefore, a top priority for Middle Eastern countries.

Bermudez-Svankvist, who describes the global unemployment situation as “troubling,” is particularly concerned by key aspects of the unemployment crisis — such as the increasing numbers of long-term jobless and young people who remain out of work. Her presidency of WAPES, which she took on in June 2012, gives her a truly global perspective on what different governments are doing to boost employment. The size of a country’s economy is crucial, she believes, in shaping what policy-makers can do to stabilize and improve the jobs market.

“So much depends on a country’s GDP,” she says. “It really controls what a government is able or not able to do. But what’s clear is the need to focus on those people who are not in the jobs market, who perhaps have never been employed and feel cut off from society as a result. We can see this type of structural unemployment in many countries, with large groups excluded from the workforce for a number of different reasons, such as access to adequate education or training.”

Time to get active

WAPES was established in 1989 by the employment service authorities of Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the United States and Sweden, together with the United Nations’ labor organization ILO. With a secretariat in Brussels, the organization now has about 90 member nations and works to increase knowledge about labor market issues and to spread lessons and best practices among its members.

“People need and deserve to be able to support themselves,” she says. “Employment is so important, both for individuals’ well-being and society as a whole. It is a basic part of human life, or the ‘social contract’ that exists in all countries. In recent years, though, this has broken down too often. This means we need more active labor market policies — to provide support and help to both employers and job seekers.”

Asked to specify what this would mean in practical terms, Bermudez-Svankvist says a more active labor market policy involves measures to deliver more effective matching between the supply of and the demand for labor, as well as focused support activities and training for vulnerable groups in order to bring excluded groups into labor markets. “We also need to facilitate the mobility necessary to meet current labor markets needs,” she adds.

Bermudez-Svankvist is herself proof of such increased mobility. Born in Mallorca, she has a Swedish mother and has lived in Sweden since she was a teenager and is, like so many Nordic people, multilingual. Having trained as a dentist, she has held several management positions with the Stockholm County Council and the National Dental Service in England. She has also held directorships including the Red Cross Central Board and the Federation of Private Enterprises, specializing in helping organizations through periods of change and reform. Evidence of the high profile she enjoys as a result of these labors is confirmed by a glance around her office; photos of herself with Sweden’s Prime Minister and Finance Minister take pride of place alongside her own paintings and drawings.

Now, though, her time is very much focused on helping get people into the workforce. She has made addressing youth unemployment a key priority of her presidency of WAPES, and it is clear

that this is a group particularly hard hit by the financial crisis. “In 2011, about 75 million people aged 15 to 24 years were unemployed, an increase of over 4 million from 2007,” she says. But while she agrees that this is a significant issue, she is quick to reject the suggestion that the world is now facing a “lost generation.”

“What we need to do is get ahead of that and prevent it from happening,” she says firmly. “There are a number of reasons why young people have been particularly badly affected. They don’t have as many contacts as older professionals and not a huge amount of experience that can help them when an economy slows. They are also more likely to work to fixed-term contracts. On the

other hand, young people are often highly mobile and flexible, which means that we can use our collaboration to create tools and meeting places that can help them get into the workforce.”

The role of public employment services

Given the diverse and challenging issues facing governments, the unemployed and employers around the world, it is clear that the task facing public employment services is increasingly important. And providing employers and job seekers with the best possible support is not easy when resources are being withdrawn due to government budget cuts. “The demands are bigger than ever,” admits Bermudez- Svankvist. Potential tasks include creating meetings between employers and job seekers, reflecting the need to increase the cooperation between different groups in society in order to address the unemployment gap.

“Public employment services must seek closer collaboration with a large number of partners involved in the labor markets because they can’t do it alone,” she adds. “All need to work together — employers, private and public businesses, municipalities, other agencies and organizations. Only then will countries be able to cope with the labor market challenges they face.” And it’s not just about domestic issues; what’s also crucial is the sharing of knowledge and ideas internationally. “Working together will improve the conditions for greater mobility and facilitate labor migration,” she says. “Countries can benefit from learning from the experiences of others. This, in turn, leads to a better service to job seekers, private businesses and public employers.”

There is little doubt that such tasks will be more than enough to keep Bermudez- Svankvist fully occupied until the end of her presidential term in 2015. It seems on first glance to be very unlike her days as a dentist, but she is quick to correct this impression. “It’s not so different; I examine

the problem, diagnose what is wrong and then prescribe the solution,” she says, before setting off to her next meeting.  Solving the world’s unemployment problem won’t occur overnight, but there appears little chance of Bermudez- Svankvist backing down — or slowing down — any time soon.

Susanne Tillqvist is an Advisory Services Partner with Ernst & Young AB in Sweden. [email protected]

This article first appeared in the Jan/ Feb edition of Citizen Today

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