As some of our podcast listeners may know, we are - the WorkLife HUB - a partner of a European project that is funded by the European Commission, by the EU Programme for Employment and Social Innovation. The project is called EQW&L, Equality for Work and Life. The goal of EQW&L is to develop and test a series of strategies, a new intervention model and toolkit that facilitate the access of unemployed people to the labour market, who are hindered to find employment due to their work-life conflict. In this intervention model, the developed tools and research are empowering the staff of public employment services employees across Italy to deliver this new methodology in supporting job seekers in finding jobs that they can keep, at the same time reconcile with their care responsibilities. In one of our previous episodes, we hosted Anna Chiara Giorio, from Anpal, the coordinator of the initiative, who gave us the context of the project, explained the various work packages, and the ambition of EQW&L. So we thought that it would be really interesting to also speak to somebody very knowledgeable about public employment services (PES) in the EU context. This is why we are speaking to Hilde in this conversation.

Hilde Olsen started working in the secretariat of the EU Network of Public Employment Services in the European Commission in 2018. She is also a seconded national expert from the Norwegian Public Employment Services, NAV. Before that Hilde worked for various public authorities in Norway, she also worked for the OECD as an Employment Analysis. She holds a Master from the University of Oslo.

What follows here is our conversation with Hilde - edited for length and clarity. To know more about the work of the European Network of Public Employment Services, please visit the Network's official website here.

Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you very much for joining us today in this conversation. Could you please explain to the listeners your role within the European Commission and the European Network of Public Employment Services.

Hilde Olsen: Thank you for this invitation. I am very pleased to participate in this podcast and explain to you what is our role and what public employment services are doing regarding the topics you introduced. Public employment services (PES) operate at the national level. Their role, among many, is to implement employment policies. Public employment services have a lot in common but we find interesting differences among them as well. I think that it could be useful for anyone to know more about the work of these institutions, and the role of the European Network of Public Employment Services. In this network, we organize the EU level cooperation which includes all EU countries as well as Iceland and Norway. On the practical level, the network is supported by the secretariat based in Brussels. I am one of the lucky one who works at the secretariat as one of the experts seconded by my national organisation. We organise the sharing of experiences and mutual learning among the participating public employment services.

Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you for this introduction. I am not sure if all of our listeners are familiar with the work and role of public employment services. Would it be possible for you to briefly explain what kinds of organisations are public employment services? What is their role and how do they match job seekers with employers?

Hilde Olsen: Public employment services are among the main agencies executing employment policies and thus directly accountable to governance. Their role includes to set up and facilitate key public functions in the labour market such as job matching, or to support the (re)integration of job seekers. Interestingly, the organisational structure of PES can be different across Europe. For example, how and if social partners are involved in governance is one difference. Although one role tends to be always common in every country, that is for PES to help and coordinate the matching of the supply and demand in the labour market. This is their job matching function.

How do they do this? This differs from country to country and also regarding which group of job seekers we are talking about. In general, public employment services need to provide relevant labour market information to both job seekers and to employers to make them aware of opportunities. Public employment services can also intervene more directly in the job match. In some countries, public employment services offer recruitment assistance particularly to smaller firms that might not possess huge HR departments compared to larger ones. They offer support to job seekers as well, particularly to target groups that face difficulties to find employment. These groups often get more targeted support such as counselling, recommendations or upskilling. PES can also offer support to employers to recruit people for a certain period.

Agnes Uhereczky: In my next question I would like to explore with you some of the current challenges of the labour market and public employment services. As we are recording this episode after (during) the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, many of us know that there is a huge spike in unemployment in several countries, especially in Spain, Italy, France, Belgium, where governments have already struggled with large mismatches and young unemployment. What are some of the challenges that public employment services are facing?

Hilde Olsen: As you have rightly pointed out we are living in a very difficult period because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this current situation, I would say that it is important for PES staff to effectively respond to the current reality and challenges, such as the high number of job losses we see in some of the countries, and, on the other hand keep in mind the more structural challenges. To some extent, these challenges can also, in a way, be very similar, in particular digitalisation. We have been observing for a long time labour markets trends such as digitalisation and automatization, as they are changing many jobs. Some jobs disappear, others change their context, and new jobs emerge. To some extent, this digitalisation process could even be enforced by the COVID-19 pandemic. In brief, I think that we will be seeing lots of developments in the area of digitalisation in the times to come, so this challenge will probably be stronger both for labour market participation and for public employment services also.

One of the key roles for public employment services is then to try to avoid the formation of skill gaps and mismatches in the labour market.

As I have already mentioned PES are often in charge of the coordination of active labour market measures in their countries that can include for example training provided to those who need to be upskilled. In this area, public employment services are often cooperating with the education sector. Another challenge that you have also mentioned is the ageing of the labour force which has been a constant challenge for many years now, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. So, therefore, another important challenge for public employment services is to encourage labour market participation of these groups. Another main topic is increased labour participation among women.

Agnes Uhereczky: How do you think the challenges of job seekers and employees with care responsibilities will change in the post-COVID-19-world? Do you think that it will be easier for them to find a job that offers working time flexibility, working place flexibility, because more employers will be embracing flexible working and teleworking?

Hilde Olsen: Yes, as you correctly point out, employers also get new experiences about the fact that work can be organized in a different way than before. And this, of course, gives new opportunities. PES also takes this on-board in their cooperation with labour market partners, or other stakeholders, because - as you mentioned - care responsibilities can be difficult to combine for some people, with a standard work, where you need to be present at the workplace from 8 till 4 every day. The possibility to use more time and space flexibility in the future will be important for many people with care obligations. Another question is access to care facilities, which is an area where many PES cooperate with other public authorities to find solutions since care facilities are often offered by municipalities.

Agnes Uhereczky: I think this is a very important point to stress: teleworking is not a substitute for childcare. So I am very happy that you have brought this up and we point this out. Let's further zoom in on work-life balance. The final beneficiaries of the EQW&L project are job seekers and also often those who have been long term unemployed because of family and care responsibilities either for children or for a disabled family member or spouse or parent. One of their challenges is that they have been out of the formal labour market for some years and there is a big gap in their CVs. The skills they possess might not be relevant anymore. So how can public employment services support these long term unemployed job seekers who have a gap in their CVs because of this care period?

Hilde Olsen: Yes, this is also an extensive topic because even when you refer to people who have been out from the labour market for a certain period their situation and opportunities in the labour market can be very different. It is crucial in general to provide information about opportunities in the current labour market that could have changed since the person left it. This can also include those who need possibilities to attend activities that can improve their possibilities in the labour market. This can span from support in job search, how to attend interviews, or make applications in today's modern labour market, to more extensive support, for example, training. Short term training can be offered by PES if someone needs reeducation and recommendations in the education sector. This area is relatively broad. PES can support job seekers more directly with providing contact information to employers. They can even support employers throughout a certain period to try out candidates and see how well they adapted to the labour market after the long term absence. This is an important topic for PES but a very complex one. For this to be effectively tackled PES need to have a big toolbox from which they can choose from and apply accordingly.

Agnes Uhereczky: This can also contribute to changing the mentality of the employers about what they consider to be valuable skills and how job seekers demonstrate these skills. Because one of the ongoing conversations around this is that raising a family, childcare, organizing a life of a family does give you a lot of skills that you did not gain through a course or training but something that can be quite relevant and useful in a professional work setting.

Hilde Olsen: Yes, sure. Gaps can be created in CVs because of various reasons. Sometimes employers might get concerned about this. Public employment services - also in my home country, Norway - has focused quite much on this issue and advocated for employers to look beyond the gap. The gap can be sometimes even useful for further career steps. What is important is to cater to employers with the right information about such issues and provide them with good examples.

Agnes Uhereczky: Could you share with listeners maybe a few inspiring examples from the PES network, members, on how they tackle this challenge combining paid work and care responsibilities and answering to the flexibility needs of job seekers?

Hilde Olsen: One great example we can find is from the PES network in Austria. They have a very comprehensive programme that targets all women who are leaving or soon to be leaving maternity leave. This programme covers more or less 40.000 women every year. One key element from this programme is to invite all the relevant women to come as early as possible to the PES offices to receive relevant information. This can be information about the labour market in general, education possibilities, or also about the possibility to get special support if that is needed either by the PES offices or other institutions. For example, we already spoke about the role of relevant actors such as universities or municipalities. If someone belongs to one of these groups that need more intensive support PES can offer more tailor-made advice and support, where individuals can get access to more topic experts in the local offices. As you mentioned, public employment services have strategies to target employers. This can range from financial support to counselling, for example, on how organisations can adapt to workplace flexibility or set up teleworking policies, or how to draw on the opportunities for childcare.

Another example I would like to mention is of the Balearic employment services and how it provides specific support to more vulnerable groups. They have for several years run a programme that targets women who have been a victim of gender violence, and particularly also for women with family responsibility and without a regular income. You can assume that this is a group who needs a lot of support, and therefore PES on the Balearic island cooperates first and foremost with other relevant local authorities and municipalities, and NGOs specialized on protecting women and vulnerable groups. This group of women also often needs very tailor-made, long term support, for example on working hours, redesign of tasks, training etc. There I would like to mention the role of employers as well. The Balearic Island Employment Services has already run this programme for several years, and their experience is that employers are usually flexible about adaptation and that they don't mind internal changes if it helps women to adapt to their working lives.

Agnes Uhereczky: Based on your wealth of experience, in your opinion, how do employers need to change to be more open and embrace a wider talent pool, and also considering the diversity of candidates they might have excluded otherwise in the past? Those employees or candidates that value work-life balance, or have caring responsibilities, can also contribute to the success of the organisation. I really would like to highlight here this change in mentality. I think the EQW&L project and a lot of your work are also pointing at; and, it is to ensure that there is more diversity, more inclusion and value on candidates who can bring a lot of added value to organisations even if they need a little bit more support. And even if hiring them not the obvious answer but takes a little bit adjustment from employers as well.

Hilde Olsen: To change employers' attitudes and workplace practices public employment services have close cooperation with employers. They also have the necessary knowledge about the opportunities, and also information about the buttons that need to be pushed to drive such change. Knowledge is of course not the only important thing in this complex process. But very importantly, what I mean is that we need to know about unused labour and competence potentials. Also, knowledge about possible support must be provided to employers. They can get this information, for example, if public employment services take steps to recruit outside from their usual pool of their actual candidates. If employers are provided with the necessary information that such practices can work they can get back to their constituencies with these experiences as examples. No one should underestimate the importance of good information, and the sharing of good practice.