All refugees from Ukraine enjoy unrestricted access to the local labor market. Is Austria ready for this? At the same time, the labor market faces significant challenges. Never before have there been so many long-term unemployed and vacant jobs at the same time as there are now. what is the reason? Women still earn less than men even though they are better educated. What measures will help?
Labor Secretary Martin Kocher addresses these and other questions in an interview:
Vienna newspaper: Secretary Kosher, I teach over and over in the new high schools. I suffer from a major language deficit. Many children aged 10 to 15 cannot finish a sentence in German. When reading, they come across simple words that are difficult to pronounce correctly. How are these students supposed to find a job in a few years?
Martin Kocher: It is actually quite a challenge. We know from skills surveys that many young people have problems acquiring basic skills. Then AMS (Employment Service, Note) and companies try to make improvements. It should actually be a school job.
Do we have to admit the loss of a part of this generation?
No not at all. The rate of unemployed or uneducated youth is declining. In European comparison, it is very low in Austria. At some point we’ll get these guys into training, the only question is what’s the cost. But it should never get to the point where a lot of catching up in adulthood has to be done.
The numbers speak plain language. There are more and more long-term unemployed, there are currently about 106,000 people without work for more than a year, although there are about 120,000 vacancies – more than ever…
The education system is already doing well in Austria. However, there are certain groups that may not get enough attention. A high percentage of schools, especially in urban areas, are non-German speaking children. You find it difficult to achieve your goals. However, the elderly face greater challenges in the labor market. They account for the bulk of long-term unemployment. So it is not a failure of education policy, but a failure of labor market policy of recent years and decades.
The City of Vienna has registered 1,200 Lifebrain employees for termination of employment. They are no longer needed to process PCR tests. What do you offer them?
Layoffs of this magnitude are always in question. Fortunately, there are enough vacancies in Vienna and the surrounding area, including for unskilled workers. We can make an offer for every unemployed person, either an offer of a job or an offer of qualification.
There is a larger group without work. The war in Ukraine brought about 120,000 people who now have full access to the Austrian labor market. Do you think that these people, who now have to learn a new language and a new script, can also work in Austria on their training jobs?
More than 100,000 people came. About 5,000 of them are currently registered, which means they will likely survive. However, we must be prepared for a greater number of homeless. If these people wish to work, their skills and necessary integration measures such as language courses will first be surveyed. I am sure many will find a job. We did not have as many vacancies as now.
Should the integration of Ukrainians into the labor market be promoted with the possibility of their survival after that?
Such persons have a temporary status of one year, with the possibility of extension. It’s hard to make predictions. Personally, I wish these people would be able to return to their homeland.
Since September, you have been announcing a major reform of unemployment insurance. Their goal: the unemployed should get a job more quickly. How many long-term unemployed should reform reduce?
We want to prevent long-term unemployment in the future through unemployment insurance reform. We currently have a major problem with long-term unemployment, which has been accumulating since 2014. But it is a trend that can be seen across Europe.
What do you think of basic income in Austria?
We already have a basic income in Austria with unemployment benefits, emergency assistance, minimum security and social assistance. But it is not an unconditional basic income. It’s the right mix of Social Security and a commitment to accepting a job when offered. This infrastructure must remain the same.
According to Austria statistics, women, on average, have a higher level of education than men. However, men are much better paid in the labor market. What should be done to ensure a more equitable distribution of income?
There are three points to this. Many women work part-time once they have children. Improving child care will be a prerequisite for changing this. There is a great need for expansion in Austria, especially for children between the ages of 1 and 3 years. This would help many women to have better chances. Second, I am in favor of wage transparency. There should be an income report of 150 employees. An internal comparison should be possible in order to clarify who is paid better and who is paid less and to counteract the disparities. Third, it has to do with social norms. In many families and schools, girls are subconsciously taught to choose less technical or sports professions than boys. Other countries are already along. There should be more awareness in this country.
The employment rate for those over 55 years old is also very low in Austria. At the same time, people are expected to work longer. Is this realistic?
The Scandinavian countries show us that they are realistic. There are employment rates for seniors of up to 80 percent, and in Austria it is as high as 55 percent. I very much hope that the current situation of shortage in the labor market means that companies will ensure that people stay in work until the standard retirement age.
In Austria, people over the age of 57 no longer feel well on average, and in Sweden this value is 73. what is happening here?
Health restrictions are the main cause of long-term unemployment and unemployment in old age. We have to get better at that. It is about a healthier lifestyle and prevention in the health sector. Not only so that people can work longer, which is repeatedly criticized as an exclusive policy of the economy, but also so that people can retire healthily and enjoy the health of their retirement for longer.
You always emphasize the Scandinavian model, you taught there yourself and also traveled to Denmark and Sweden to see for yourself. What can Austria learn from Scandinavia?
There are quite significant differences, in Scandinavia unemployment insurance is largely optional. But the security is very high, the insured unemployed get up to 90 percent of their last salary. A lot of money is invested in further training and qualification so that people can get a job again quickly. These countries are a role model for Austria. However, there will be no voluntary unemployment insurance in Austria.
You said that last week’s investigation was the “peaking point” of the unemployment reform debate process. So why were only experts from Germany and Austria invited and no one from Scandinavia?
It was for purely practical reasons. We wanted the conference to be held in German and without interpretation. The German experts who were there also know about the Scandinavian labor market and the many studies about it.
But Harz IV of Germany is not a model for Austria?
No, of course not. With Hartz IV, there are no further benefits from unemployment insurance after a certain period of time. There will be no time limit for unemployment insurance benefits in Austria.
If English is not the standard at the Conference of Scientists and Politicians in Austria, do we have an educational problem?
I really wish many Austrians were proficient in foreign languages. I would also like every young person from Austria to spend at least six months abroad through exchange programmes. To learn a language and learn about other worlds. Mobility rates in Austria are still very low.
In Scandinavia, the foundation for a successful working life is laid at school. Students learn to ask questions, conduct dialogues, and think and understand on their own. In Austria, we have a strong front-end education where rote learning is important. Aren’t you trying to fix something you missed at school?
Ideally, young people entering the labor market should be fully prepared. But I also believe that school is a place of education, not a place of training. It is about learning basic skills, i.e. reading, writing, arithmetic and learning a foreign language. Then the practical training takes place in an apprenticeship, in the company or while studying. It’s hard for schools to do, and companies often do it better.
What good is unemployment insurance reform without real educational reform?
If I always wait for repairs to happen elsewhere, I’m probably waiting too long. We are faced with the level of education available in the labor market. We can get better at that. The past few years haven’t been easy for schools either. However, in the coming years, the cohorts will likely become smaller due to demographic developments. With fewer youngsters, there will also be smaller classes. This also leads to an improvement in the staff-teacher ratio and thus the level of education.