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Modernising public employment services

The Commission aims to bring about concerted action at European Union (EU) level with a view to encouraging adaptation of public employment services in order to achieve better synergy between supply and demand in the field of employment.


Communication from the Commission of 13 November 1998: Modernising public employment services to support the European Employment Strategy [COM(98) 641 final - Not published in the Official Journal].


The public employment services (PESs) play an important part at local level in the implementation of employment policy. With more than 5 000 local agencies throughout the Union and around 160 000 staff, they are contacted directly by employers and job-seekers.

Given the recent developments on the labour market, it is essential to redefine the role of the PESs and their priorities and methods of operation.

Although the essential part of the institutional framework for the PESs depends on the measures taken in each Member State, the persons responsible for these services decided to extend the process at European level by stepping up their cooperation, exchanging their know-how and sharing their experience, with the support of the European Commission.

The PESs have traditionally had three functions in Europe:

  • provider of information on the labour market: collection of data on job vacancies and potential applicants and provision of information on the possibilities of training or retraining;
  • brokerage: main activity comprising the public display of job vacancies to be filled and encouragement of a rapid match between supply and demand (the PESs of the Member States are said to be involved in 10-30% of all recruitment);
  • market adjustment: the PESs, by being involved in the implementation of labour market policies, can help to adjust supply and demand in employment.

The essential role of the PESs has been reflected since 1998 in the Employment Guidelines under the four priority areas of action:

  • employability: the PESs play a key role in this area by providing counselling on job search techniques, access to vocational training and supplementary assistance for specific groups (disabled people, ethnic minorities). The Commission also underlines the need to enhance the training of young people in order to make it easier for them to enter the labour market. The PESs are involved in this work by guaranteeing the operation of apprenticeship training systems, ensuring that training places become available or acting as an intermediary between the training places and the young workers;
  • entrepreneurship: the promotion of self-employment for the unemployed or for workers threatened with redundancy is one of the objectives of the PESs. The PESs are also developing partnerships with other public or private bodies in order to introduce local job-creation strategies to meet the new needs;
  • adaptability: although the sheer scale of the unemployment problem means that the PESs focus most of their action on the unemployed, they continue to play a far from negligible role in the management of structural change in enterprises (involvement of the PESs in various programmes for training, retraining and redeploying workers who are having to cope with structural change and are in danger of losing their jobs);
  • equal opportunities: the PESs are involved in promoting female participation in the labour market. Their action specifically involves helping men and women who want to return to work after a period of absence, and implementing equal opportunity policies in the area of employment for certain categories of workers (disabled people, ethnic minorities).

The guidelines for the period 2005-2008 (integral guideline No 19) stress the importance of the continued modernisation and strengthening of employment services.

Faced with the rapid changes on the labour market for both workers (rise in the level of education, increase in the participation of women, ageing workforce, etc.) and employers (need for a labour force that is capable of adapting to the constant changes on the market, new forms of work organisation), the PESs have to adapt in order to be effective.

The PESs have to face a series of new challenges:

  • strengthen their position in sectors with high employment potential, especially the services sector;
  • develop the use of the new information and communication technologies;
  • reconcile the sometimes diverging demands of employers and job-seekers (systematic personalised case management helps to combat long-term unemployment but may be to the detriment of the service provided to employers);
  • build relationships with other service providers: commercial employment services already exist but mainly concern certain types of job-seekers (recruitment of executive or managerial staff). It is essential to redefine the role and tasks of the PESs in relation to the other providers of commercial or non-commercial services: for example, possibility of the PESs withdrawing from activities which can be carried out more effectively by other employment services, possibility of outsourcing certain tasks;
  • placement of job-seekers and management of benefits: most Member States would like to see the introduction of a system of benefits that makes a greater contribution to employment. In order to achieve this objective, it is necessary to establish a closer link between the management of benefit schemes and the delivery of employment services (although difficulties may arise because of the possible incompatibility between the management of benefits and the placing of job-seekers);
  • application of public policy and provision of a service: while the management and operation of the PESs increasingly resemble those of enterprises, the application of a public policy may burden the PESs with administrative and bureaucratic tasks. Agreements are regularly adopted between the PESs and the ministries in order to reconcile the need for national policy delivery and the operational independence of the agencies;
  • establishment of an appropriate level of delegation to the regional and local public authorities, which are increasingly involved in combating unemployment. However, this development will have to be reconciled with the maintenance of a unified national system for matters relating to equal treatment or the unification of the unemployment insurance system;
  • provision of a national service in a European context: the development of international labour mobility makes it essential to manage labour markets from a European perspective. Employers are looking for specific, highly qualified, multilingual staff who are capable of adapting to new cultures and new forms of work. The PESs will therefore have to respond to these new needs, in cooperation with the EURES network.

Most of the PESs have begun to modernise their organisation. This has mainly meant further decentralisation and greater margin for manoeuvre of the PESs for ensuring that the resources allocated to them are focused on the local labour market.

Most of the Member States have abolished the monopoly of the PESs. Links have begun to be developed with private agencies.

The European employment strategy (EES) has provided the opportunity to strengthen the modernisation process. The PESs are a key instrument in the implementation of the Guidelines, and the National Action Plans clearly place them at the centre of the national delivery systems for employment services.

In order to strengthen the effectiveness of the PESs, the European strategy advocates concerted action to meet the following conditions:

  • promoting access to job vacancies through various techniques of brokerage and job search assistance. This involves establishing and developing good relations with employers and the gradual transformation of the PESs into genuine service enterprises (modernisation of the range of services, creation of specific enterprise and sector desks, improvement of the public image, use of information technologies, etc.);
  • ensuring systematic management of the cases of unemployed people, which entails careful diagnosis of individual needs and close monitoring of unemployed job-seekers throughout their stay on the register of these services (regular interviews, introduction of tailor-made individual action plans);
  • contributing to the coordinated delivery of all services to job-seekers, in other words introducing close coordination between counselling, brokerage, information provision and income support;
  • exploiting synergy between PESs and the other relevant actors by building networks with the regional and local authorities, the social partners and the establishments providing vocational education or assistance to unemployed people;
  • using PESs to facilitate international labour mobility and reduce the obstacles to the free movement of workers within the European Union.

In order to ensure that the modernisation of the PESs is a success, concerted efforts are required at all levels:

  • the PESs should introduce more effective procedures and working methods and fully exploit the various possibilities offered by European cooperation;
  • the Member States, through the implementation of their employment strategy, should support the modernisation of the PESs and their development (quality of staff, overall restructuring of expenditure, decentralisation, etc.);
  • the social partners, which have already been involved in the management of the PESs for several years in most Member States (to differing degrees), have a crucial role to play in improving the adaptability of firms and their employees;
  • the European Union has introduced a series of instruments and programmes to support the efforts undertaken at national level (EURES, the European Social Fund, the Commission's support for cooperation between the PESs in Europe).
Last updated: 20.06.2005
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