23 Apr

'We've moved the dial on youth mobility'

This column was first published in TTG on Tuesday 23 April 2024

The European Commission’s proposal that it be allowed to negotiate for a youth mobility scheme between the EU and the UK is the start of an important conversation about labour mobility. This could help UK travel and tourism businesses make progress in addressing staffing shortages, restore opportunities young people lost due to UK’s departure from the EU, and make a tangible contribution to UK’s growth prospects – benefiting whichever Party is in office after the next UK General Election.

ABTA’s research with Seasonal Businesses in Travel (SBiT) illustrates the seriousness of the challenge that many outbound businesses have faced – with a 69% fall in UK nationals working in tourism support roles – such as travel reps, chalet hosts and ski guides – in Europe since the UK left the European Union.

Not only is this hampering businesses today, but it also has damaging consequences for the future of our industry and skills within the sector; 38% of travel staff, and 49% of leaders in the industry, have worked overseas at an earlier point of their careers. Without access to those roles, the future talent pipeline for the industry is set to be turned off.

It is also important to make clear it is not only outbound tourism businesses that would benefit; the inbound and domestic sectors each also have their own workforce challenges, whether those be related to shortages of particular skills, such as languages, or staffing issues, which could also be partially alleviated by a youth mobility deal.

That is why ABTA has been working hard over recent years, alongside industry partners, to put forward a pragmatic, positive, and evidence-based case for change in this area - to policymakers at home and abroad.

One of our main proposals has been to extend the UK’s current youth mobility scheme, which applies to countries including Australia, New Zealand and Japan, to EU countries, either on a bilateral basis or through a deal with the EU as whole. It is also worth highlighting that EU countries have similar arrangements in place too – for example, Italy signed a youth mobility deal with Canada as recently as 2020.

We’ve had positive signals before last week’s announcement that our messages have been cutting through. For example, the government recognised the potential of youth mobility deals for boosting growth in the Autumn Statement in November, and Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, expressly called for a deal with the EU just a few weeks ago. The Commission’s appeal is further encouragement, and it’s important we do not lose heart due to the negative political reaction we have seen from UK politicians over the past few days.

ABTA’s Manifesto for Travel and Tourism lists a youth mobility arrangement as a priority for the next Government. It remains our view that this is the case, and that there could be an opportunity to make progress once the election has passed.

However, that will require a detailed and objective cost-benefit analysis of the benefits of youth mobility schemes, which will not be achievable this side of the election. Especially with the issue seen as intwined with Brexit and immigration – two of the most politically controversial topics around.

It is vital to make clear that those who conflate youth mobility with those two topics are mistaken. Nobody is seeking to re-run the Brexit referendum. 

Participation in youth mobility schemes do not offer any longer-term right to remain, so is not akin to freedom of movement or to other types of migration. It has been disappointing to see politicians misleadingly claim otherwise.

But we shouldn’t be overly discouraged or defeatist. The dial has shifted significantly on this issue in recent years in terms of political will, and rhetoric. And, while making clear it doesn’t want a pan-EU youth mobility deal, the current government’s response to the Commission did indicate an interest in doing country by country deals.  

Clearly there are some difficult hurdles to overcome. But we are moving in a positive direction; there has been a change in trajectory since we started raising this matter with the UK Government and we hope that will continue after the next election, whoever forms the next administration.  

Our message to the future government on this issue remains one about pragmatism. We know, whoever forms the next government, generating growth within the UK economy will be a priority. With little or no fiscal headroom left, there will be limited levers available. This is one such lever.

Quite aside from the broader cultural and social benefits to restoring these links with Europe, from a purely economic standpoint, youth mobility arrangements would support an industry which generates billions for the UK economy and supports hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Luke Petherbridge, Director of Public Affairs, ABTA – The Travel Association