ANTWERP, Belgium (Reuters) - At 29, Samira Ahidar just got a permanent job, her first.
Ahidar, who still lives with her parents, dropped out of school a decade ago and her adult life has been dominated by the search for work. She would still be jobless if it were not for a job creation scheme that employs her at an elderly care home.
“I’ve no idea where I’ll be in five years time,” said Ahidar, dressed in an orange apron that comes with her new role. “It is so hard to find work, you feel like giving up.”
Ahidar does not live in Greece or Spain, countries where as many as one in two young people are without work, but in the wealthy Belgian port city of Antwerp. With its stunning 16th-century Gothic houses, the city is a world centre for diamond trading and boasts a cutting-edge fashion industry. It also has a fast-growing number of unemployed twentysomethings.
Youth unemployment is notoriously a problem of southern Europe. What is less obvious, as the euro zone slips into its second recession in just three years, is the scale of the problem in the north.
A quarter of 18-to-25 year olds in Antwerp are now jobless, up from 19 percent in 2008. In some parts of Brussels, the Belgian and European capital and the third-richest region in the European Union, youth joblessness is as high as 40 percent. In France, Britain and Sweden, as many as one in five young people are now out of work.
The rising pool of jobless youth is fuelling class and racial divisions, according to youth workers and some politicians. Many experts blame joblessness for outbursts of violence such as last year’s riots in Britain.
And today’s problem could have a big impact on Europe’s future. The continent’s labor force is set to decline by 50 million people over the next 50 years, according to the World Bank. Skilled, experienced new workers will be needed to support an ageing population.
“Young people are being marginalized with major economic consequences,” said Francois Robert, a social worker at the employment institute Bruxelles Formation. “The problems people are talking about in Greece and Spain are right outside the European Commission’s door in Brussels.”
Southern Europe has long struggled with youth unemployment. In Italy, the rate has not dropped below 20 percent in more than two decades, according to the EU’s statistics office Eurostat. In Spain, the rate has averaged 30 percent since 1990.
By contrast, in the United States, youth unemployment is 17 percent, up from just under 12 percent in December 2007. The European exception is Germany, where only 8 percent of young people aged 15 to 24 are out of work, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It is normal that unemployment goes up in tough times. But worryingly, some of the problems, even in northern Europe, are structural. In Belgium as elsewhere, these include a lack of skills, discrimination and the cushion of welfare payments that approach the minimum wage.
Belgium has an open, high-tech economy and the world’s 12th highest per capita income, but “the education we offer is not always in tune with what the market needs,” says Pascal Smet, education minister for Flanders, the northern, Dutch-speaking half of the country.
The shortcomings have important consequences. The gap between young people’s skills and those required by employers means Belgium has one of the highest percentages in the industrialized world of young people who are not in employment, education or training, according to the OECD.
It’s not as if there are no jobs. Flanders, which is home to Antwerp, has a trade-friendly location between Germany’s industrial belt and the North Sea that attracts multinationals. In 2011, the number of jobs on offer in the region - excluding temporary agency work - rose 17 percent from the year before. But there were only about three job seekers for every vacancy in March, according to the latest data available - the lowest level since 2000.
Entrepreneur Frederic Bulcaen says he cannot find the staff he needs for his industrial ventilation company Typhoon, which deploys teams of engineers across Europe to install equipment to keep factories clean.
“I just hired somebody with a master’s in industrial engineering who was able to choose from 10 different companies that all wanted him,” said Bulcaen, in an office overlooking stacks of shiny steel pipes and giant motors. “It is very, very difficult.”
Materials engineers are needed in industries such as aerospace and chemicals, but only about 15 of them graduate in Belgium every year, forcing companies to look abroad.
For some young people, basic education is the problem. To work in Brussels, for instance, English is a must-have: the city, often likened to Washington D.C., is packed with embassies, international organizations and industry lobbyists.
About 36 percent of people in Brussels come from outside the European Union, and there’s not much opportunity for monolingual French-speaking children of immigrants. The car plants and factories where they would have found work two decades ago have closed.
Twenty-four-year-old Michel Ayim is a second-generation immigrant who spends his days with his friend Pierre Bello, smoking cigarettes and listening to French rap in front of the paint-flaked warehouses along Brussels’ industrial-era canal. Just a few stops away on the metro are the shiny complexes of the EU institutions, where members of the European Parliament earn 95,000 euros ($120,000) a year plus benefits.
“I go to a temping agency, but I get turned away because I don’t speak good English,” said Ayim, who has not had a permanent job since leaving school. “So maybe I work as a waiter for a day, but I can only dream of a good salary.”
Children of immigrants - who mostly came from North Africa - face particular hurdles. One in five people in Belgium are of immigrant origin but people from outside Europe are often poorly integrated, and immigrants rarely fill professional jobs.
Fewer than half the non-EU immigrants who have yet to obtain Belgian nationality were in a job in May this year, according to a study by the Flanders job agency VDAB.
“They should have told our parents how important education is and that you have to push your children to get a qualification,” said Ahidar, whose parents came from North Africa in the 1960s to work in Belgian industry.
Some children of immigrants say they are dissuaded from gaining useful skills. Jobless 26-year-old Rashid, whose parents came from Morocco, said his “teachers at primary school used to tell my parents I was a talented and creative student.”
“But when I moved to secondary education, they immediately started telling them I should follow a career in manual labor,” he said, sipping mint tea and watching Latin American football in a Moroccan cafe in Antwerp.
Some Belgian employers also discriminate on race despite laws against it. An investigation by recruitment agency federation Federgon found a third of agencies agreed to send only white Belgians to fill vacancies during the past year.
One 25-year-old, Hamza Ahmadoun, said he had done around 60 jobs from security to telesales in the six years since leaving school. “I speak Dutch, English and Arabic, but I don’t get a chance, it is pure discrimination,” he said. “In the morning I get up, I pray and see what the day brings.”
But it is not just the children of immigrants who are struggling.
Anna De Cock, 24, a white Belgian born in the Netherlands, works sweeping Antwerp’s tree-lined avenues as part of another job creation scheme. “I am lucky to be here,” she said, dressed in a bulky jump suit and carrying a black broom.
De Cock wanted to become a chef and took jobs washing dishes in dark, back-alley kitchens, but was unable to find steady work, lost interest and stopped showing up.
Then there’s the issue of unemployment benefits in northern Europe, which for a single young person are more than double that of the United States. Belgium is even more generous than that.
A Belgian school leaver with a diploma can receive benefits of around 900 euros ($1,200) a month after a year of unemployment. The minimum wage of 1,400 euros a month before tax, which De Cock earns, is one of the world’s highest.
After deductions, there’s only about a 150-euro difference between unemployment benefit and the pay for low-skilled work, said Peter Stappaerts, director of Werkhaven, a job scheme in Antwerp. “So unfortunately it is easier to stay home and collect benefits.” On top of this, young mothers have an added disincentive: to work, they have to pay for childcare.
Over the past year, riots in Britain and France have been linked with the frustration of unemployment. There has also been rioting in Antwerp and Brussels. Earlier this year, protesters hurled bins and metal barriers at a police station in a poor area of Brussels after a Muslim woman was arrested for refusing to remove a face veil, banned in Belgium.
“We are looking at the emergence of a generation of young people who have always been unemployed,” said Patrick Manelickx, the head of Brussels-based youth centre JES that trains youngsters and tries to get them into work.
“There is a feeling of frustration, of anger among many of them, that they don’t have a future,” he said.
The European Commission is pushing the bloc’s 27 countries to set up schemes to offer training or further study to any young person who does not find a job within four months of leaving school. Some countries have set aside funds to support this.
Governments elsewhere have moved to reform benefits or education, and encourage youth employment with lower taxes and less job security. In France, the government is fast-tracking a job-creation scheme.
But Belgium is forcing through around 13 billion euros in budget cuts this year and says it cannot afford such a plan, although it may reform its education system. Flanders’ education minister Smet wants to make unemployment benefits dependent on trying to find work or study. “I am all for solidarity in our society,” he said. “But you can’t have something for nothing.”
Ahidar’s new job as a driver gives her hope of starting her own taxi business ferrying Antwerp’s elderly about. But she cannot get bank financing.
“I had the character to keep looking for work,” Ahidar said. “Others didn’t and ended up in crime, and the job situation is so bad that you start to understand why.”
Editing by Sara Ledwith and Simon Robinson