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Entrepreneurship Promotion as an Approach for the Inclusion of Youth and Vulnerable Groups in the Labour Market - Job Opportunities through Business Support (JOBS) Project

The Peer Review meeting was held on the 10th and 11th of April 2008 in Sofia, Bulgaria, hosted by the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy. Ten peer countries participated in the exchange of good practice: Belgium, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania and Spain. It was the first Peer Review of the spring term, under the priority theme of "Increasing labour supply".

When the project started, the Bulgarian labour market was characterised by a period of dynamic transition, with industrial restructuring and considerable job losses. In 2001, the employment rate fell below 50% and the unemployment rate reached almost 20%. As a consequence, various districts, municipalities and smaller settlements suffered from the economic decline and negative social consequences such as high unemployment and progressing poverty. But during recent years the economy recovered and foreign direct investment increased. Active labour market measures had a positive impact, resulting in an employment rate of 61.7% and an unemployment rate of 7.7% in 2007.

Job Opportunities through Business Support - JOBS is a project of the Bulgarian Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, coordinated at national level and implemented at local level. The project started in October 2002, supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and will continue until the end of 2009and addresses development problems and structural unemployment. The development of entrepreneurship on the basis of local resources was seen as a possible solution for ameliorating the economic and social polarisation of the depressed small areas. It is aimed at promoting business activities among the population - and especially among vulnerable sub groups in the labour market - through entrepreneurship.

The project has been enhanced with additional funds and an extensive network of 42 Business Centres (most of them including Information Technology Centres), 10 Business Incubators and 17 'Window Offices' have been created across Bulgaria. They support the establishment and strengthening of micro and small enterprises and promote sustainable job creation in communities facing high unemployment. The centres facilitate cooperation between the municipalities, the local employment offices, the non-governmental sector, the business and civil society actors to accelerate local economic development. They provide a wide range of support including information, consultancy in various areas, market information, training and business plan development as well as the provision of office facilities and financial services (e.g. micro credits and a leasing scheme).

The quantitative results to the end of 2007 are as follows: a total number of 30 100 jobs have been created  or sustained;  43,900 people have been trained in various courses; 128,000 business services have been provided; 1,607 financial leases approved; and 309 start-up companies have been given financial grant assistance. The strength of the JOBS project lies in activating and bringing together local resources. With the establishment of independent Business Centres as non-governmental organisations - based on a prior needs-assessment - and a coordinating unit at national level (the National Business Development Network) a support structure for local development was created. However, the challenges to be faced and questions to be solved in the future concern the sustainability of the supported businesses and the generated employment. When UNDP funding comes to an end, the financial basis of the whole support structure and the microcredit and leasing scheme will need to be reviewed. A comprehensive evaluation of the JOBS project was not yet conducted but is planned.

A site visit to the Samokov Business Centre, south of Sofia, gave insight into the more practical aspects of the project. This Business Centre relies on the support of the municipality, the local labour office and members of the business community. It managed to diversify its financial sources and thus provides services ranging from supporting young entrepreneurs to vocational training for unemployed and employees, language courses and IT services. In addition, the Business Centre provides job placement services (in cooperation with the local employment office), entrepreneurial training for young people (in cooperation with local high schools), and services for vulnerable groups including the Roma community. The site visit included presentations of the Agency for Regional Development and the Business Centres of Montana as well as Pazardjik, which informed about targeted services for the Roma population.  The peer country presentations on the second day showed that all countries have some kind of business start-up scheme for unemployed persons in place. However, these schemes function under different framework conditions, e.g. different social security systems, labour market institutions and entrepreneurial cultures, but appropriate financial support schemes are seen as a key condition for successful start-ups everywhere. The peer discussions also covered aspects like the potential to integrate specific vulnerable groups (immigrants, minorities) through the facilitation of self-employment, the possibility of 'whitening' the grey economy with business creation, etc. Very relevant aspects of transferability of the JOBS project were seen with respect to the involvement of the local level, the targeted approach and the holistic support services.
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