Interview with Mayor of Avilés, Partner in JobTown Project

02 October 2013

(This interview originally appeared in the first JobTown Newsletter and on the Urbact website)

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URBACT project JobTown is exploring ways in which cities can create opportunities for young people. The Spanish city Avilés is one of the 11 network partners. The city’s mayor – Pilar Varela – has given the project a lot of personal attention and support, attending personally JobTown Transnational Workshop last June. In this interview conducted by Ian Goldring, JobTown Lead Expert, she explains “how the employment has changed in Avilés during the years and which strategies have been adopted in tackling youth unemployment”as well as her expectations regarding JobTown project and URBACT methodology.
Avilés (pop. aprox. 90000), is a northern Spanish city that had traditionally been heavily industrialised and has now transitioned to a larger emphasis on the service sector and diversification, while maintaining a significant level of industry. 8400 of its citizens are unemployed. Being somewhat less exposed to the construction boom and bust, Avilés’ unemployment rates hover consistently around 4 or 5% below the national averages; Spanish unemployment is now at 27%, and 56% for 18-25s.

How has employment changed in Avilés?

In the 1970s if you asked a young person here what he/she wanted or expected to do – they would have likely said they expected to work in some large industrial firm or perhaps work for the government. All that has changed irrevocably.

We’re moving from a few very big companies dominating the labour market, to lots of small companies and start-ups – typically involving 1-4 people. This is a large shift, and a shift in mentality comes along it; people are more and more having to see how they themselves have to be part of their own solution.

What’s more, the big corporations and industries are the most vulnerable to de-localisation; they are all part of multinational structures now and decisions about them are taken far away, that you have little or no control over – in New York, Geneva etc. And when such decisions are taken the consequences can come fast.

For our future, we have to think a lot more about activities that are solidly linked to our territory. If companies are more connected to a territory, if the owners are from here, they feel differently; they are bound to the place in a way someone taking decisions somewhere far away simply isn’t. You see this in the attitudes of both local businesspeople and our trade unionists.

What role does entrepreneurship play in tackling youth unemployment?

Nowadays, people can’t only think in terms of “someone employing me, giving me work”.
Young people today need to consider the option of creating their own job; of course they won’t all become independent business people, but more and more of them will be turning to this option.

For years we’ve been working to promote entrepreneurial culture; it has to start in primary education. Learning about risk taking, personal initiative, teamwork, how to evaluate and take decisions… things like that.

We find as this is introduced in schooling around 15% of students at the secondary level express a motivation to pursue an entrepreneurial path. And there is plenty of demand for training in entrepreneurship.

If a business fails, we have to allow people to pick themselves up and carry on. Spanish society isn’t like in North America, where it looks good on your CV to have changed careers or gone through a business start up that closed down – that’s considered valuable experience.

Here if a business fails, society adds to the sense of failure in how it judges the person and makes that person feel. This has to change, and I believe we are seeing change. It’s slow because you are talking about changing culture, but it’s happening.

How can a local administration make business and self-employment easier? Or to support youth employment?

Helping you solve all the problems that have nothing to do with your actual business. Help you find suitable business premises, cut through the paperwork, etc. We provide training and advisory for entrepreneurs, resolve red tape, provide investment capital (e.g. €3000 business start up grant to approved small business proposals).

A local administration can make a difference; start-ups receiving the kind of support we can provide, have a significantly lower failure rate. The companies that have gone through our business incubator – La Curtidora – have a survival rate after 3 years of 77%. After 5 years it’s 68.6%. That’s good. Normally failure rates of business start-ups are significantly higher than that.

It’s would be wrong to just say well the crisis and economic forces are what they are and there’s nothing much we can do. To have an impact the administration has to make effective use of its resources and its networks.

On another front, we’ve collaborated with the national and regional governments, to bring energy providers and large consumers together to negotiate better deals, thus allowing our local companies to stay competitive. Without efforts like these job losses would have been a lot worse.

In terms of supporting employment, our services have to be thinking in terms of specific people – i.e. very individualised support and follow up, with a stable contact person. Moreover, it has to be holistic; people rarely have just an employment problem, it’s likely to go hand in hand a whole set of related issues – housing and so forth.

We have done a lot to join up our services, and thus our thinking and approaches.
However, we are not going to be able to find a job for everyone. We are going to have to live through a time of significant unemployment – this has to be faced. We need to help people stay active and not slip into defeatism. Public administration has to do what it can to palliate the damage of unemployment.

What do you want from JobTown?

We want to learn, along with other European cities, how to build and use networks, which are effective in enabling more young people to find their place on the labour market.

What role does partnership – the cornerstone of URBACT methodology – play in all this?

The administration has to work with the key economic and social actors in its territory, come to shared agreements with them and work on that basis.
Just this month the municipality signed a new Pact – Avilés Acuerda – with the local employers association and the main trade unions active in the area, to set out a strategic vision for the city.

We work with the region in a programme we co-fund, to support young people in getting their first job.
Companies receiving contracts from the Municipality are required to follow practices that are pro youth employment.

How would your characterise your approach to partnership here in Avilés?

I believe as a government we have to make public resources as effective as possible, and to do so we have to work in partnership with economic and social actors – we are moving to more and more of that kind of approach.
The municipality is the local actor best placed to join up the different partnerships and participatory processes going on in the locality, to ensure coherence and communication among them.
To work this way, we have to be coherent, patient and build trust – you have to go into it without prejudices and establish trust, without it things won’t happen.

Apprenticeships and the Dual Educational system have become hot topics in Europe; what’s the perspective in Avilés?

The local administration can facilitate linkages between training and education providers and companies – because we have the local knowledge you need for that. We have an intermediary role.

In the past we had a very developed apprenticeship system, and it all got dismantled in the 1980s. We can’t just go back to the past though, now we look a lot to Germany to learn about good Dual Education. It’s still early days though, so it’s difficult to form any conclusions on the matter yet.

Over the next two years the picture will become a lot clearer, as reform initiatives now underway get rolled out. Though I would say that what we’ve experienced in on-the-job learning so far has been positive – for employees and employers.

As we look at adopting Good Practice in apprenticeships and dual education, a lot of the current rigidities that exist in business practice and in the unions will have to change. Education and training providers are going to have to be flexible too, and adapt to a changing reality for them too; education and training have to react faster to what’s going on in the labour market.

The relation between employment and education and training has to be a lot closer, and permanent.
A local government can do a lot to foment those kinds of relations. We re using our Participation in JobTown as a tool to help make that happen.

Are there perception issues?

An important societal change we are seeing now, is how we are looking again at vocational education and placing more value on it. For many years, vocational education had a real lack of prestige – it was seen as something for people who couldn’t do better, a second-class option.

Now this is changing; lots of young university graduates are looking at doing some kind of vocational training – it’s a new strategy you see merging.
Generally we have a lot of university graduates and a lack of people qualifying in more technical fields.

How can the target group – young people – be meaningfully involved decisions on the policies and programmes that concern them?

More needs to be done to hear from young people themselves; it’s one of the things we want to work on in JobTown. We find it can be effective to have youth ‘antennas’ – i.e. young people who go out to communicate information to other young people, and also to gather information on the views, concerns and situations of young people.

They make plenty of sensible suggestions – for example, that there should be training on how to do a job interview and how to present your CV effectively in the interview process. That’s a good practical idea.

What impact is youth emigration having on Avilés?

A lot of well-educated young people are emigrating – it’s a loss for us, but they are going to grow and learn from the experience. I believe a lot of them will come back, all the better for the experience – speaking other languages well, with good work experience etc.
Emigration now is nothing like it was in the 1960s – back then a lot of them were semi-literate and did low level jobs. Now they’re engineers and the like.

Here in Asturias, we have an example from the past – the ‘Indianos’, people in the 19th century who went to the Americas to make their fortune and come back. Those people built a lot of our schools and cultural institutions here, and brought back a lot of knowledge with them. These young people now might be our new ‘Indianos’.

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