Our ‘Dual Focus PhD’ series tracks the working lives of our part-time PhD fellows. Many work at the highest of levels, both nationally and internationally, including for other parts of the UN System. They come to Maastricht for our unique PhD Dual Career Training Programme in Governance and Policy Analysis (GPAC²). This time we catch up with Nicolas Echarti, whose thesis looks at vocational rehabilitation in Germany.
You defend your dissertation with us on Thursday, 21 November 2019. When you joined us for your PhD, we already knew you from our Master’s in Public Policy and Human Development. Why did you decide to do a PhD with us after your Master’s? And why did you choose the challenging combination of working as a researcher while also following our Dual Career PhD programme?
After having experienced great excitement working on my Masters’ thesis, I felt a strong drive to work in research afterward, which made me choose to do a PhD. Becoming somewhat of an expert in a topic is certainly challenging, but at the same time very rewarding way to spend your time. I very much enjoy working in the academic environment and the freedom and challenges that come with working on different research projects. I chose to come back to Maastricht to work on the PhD because of the positive experience of my undergraduate studies. Moreover, the network of researchers and the structure of the programme further convinced me to do the PhD at the MGSoG. I chose to combine working and doing a PhD because of the valuable work experience, which I would have missed when doing a full-time study. On the other hand, I was certain that I wanted to complete a PhD, in order to have better chances to work in a permanent research position, afterward. The opportunity provided doing the dual career PhD programme was the perfect middle ground to achieve both.
Your thesis is entitled “Employment Effects of Vocational Rehabilitation in Germany: A Quantitative Analysis”. You deal with the topic of disability and specifically the ability of disabled people to participate in the labour market. From news and journals we know that we cannot yet speak about equal participation in society, in the labour market and in education. Disabled people, just like immigrants, minorities and women, are still represented less well and rewarded less for the work they do. How bad is the situation really, and are we moving in the right direction?
Although it has been shown that there are many benefits to hiring people with disabilities, people with a disability indeed still face considerable economic disadvantages compared to working-age people without disabilities. These disadvantages include lower employment rates, a significantly higher risk of living in poverty, a lower quality of life and reduced social inclusion. An important goal for public policymakers is to find tools to mitigate the negative impact of disabilities on livelihoods and social security systems, for instance, through implementing comprehensive structural reforms and labour market activation policies and by improving the effectiveness of return-to-work programmes. In order to improve work participation outcomes, many countries have in recent years adopted vocational rehabilitation programmes targeted at people with a disability.
In the case study country that I looked at, Germany, demographic changes and an increasing number of disability claims appearing relatively early in working life have led to rapid increases in the investments into vocational rehabilitation in recent decades. The Statutory Pension Insurance Fund alone invests more than 1 billion euros every year into vocational rehabilitation measures with the aim to enable full participation in the labour market. This shows that a lot is being done to improve the situation.
However, while there is plenty of research on the impact of labour market programmes targeted at regular job seekers, there is little empirical knowledge on the effects of vocational rehabilitation programmes for people with a disability. There is a need for better empirical evidence if the impact of these programmes on labour market participation is to be truly understood. While there are many efforts underway in order to improve the situation of persons with disabilities on the labour market, current provisions need to be reviewed in detail to see if we are truly moving in the right direction!
In your study you look in particular at the impact of socio-economic status and training on employment outcomes. Your analysis shows that investment in training is effective, but it would take a longer period of time to reach the point that the benefits of the training exceed the costs. From a policy perspective, this is problematic since politicians are in power for only short periods of time. Investments that do not pay out within their election term may not be considered good investments in terms of re-election. How can you convince governments to invest in labour market participation and training of disabled people?
There are laws prohibiting the layoff of workers who suffer temporary or permanent incapacity in most countries around the world. The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which has been ratified by 180 countries, clearly states: “the right of persons with disabilities to work, […] in a labour market and work environment that is open, inclusive and accessible to persons with disabilities. States Parties shall safeguard and promote the realization of the right to work, including for those who acquire a disability during the course of employment”.
Accordingly, national policymakers in signatory countries have a legal obligation to assist persons with disabilities on to the labour market. In most cases, workers’ compensation or retirement schemes are, by law, responsible for providing rehabilitation services and financial compensation to injured and disabled persons. For national lawmakers the question is how to convince social security providers and employers to invest over the long-term in rehabilitation and re-training (instead of making lump-sum settlement payments). A common problem in many countries is that decision makers are often unaware of the real financial benefits of improving worker reintegration. While the costs of work disability accrue over a long period of time and spread among various beneficiaries, stakeholders tend to underinvest in workplace reintegration measures.
In order to comply with legislation and improve work participation outcomes, national governments have a range of tools to correct for market failures in the provision of rehabilitation services encouraging investments into return-to-work programmes. These include the elimination of fiscal disincentives, while implementing fiscal incentives for employers and social security providers to increase investments in labour market participation programmes. Moreover, national policymakers need to implement and further strengthen anti-discrimination legislation to enforce equal opportunities in employing people with disabilities and chronic diseases. While it is a question of compliance with rights, rather than a financial question, knowledge of the returns to different stakeholders can help increase compliance. As such I believe that continuously informing governments about the economic consequences of labour market activation programmes (or the lack thereof) is a necessary step to develop a mindset or rehabilitation before retirement. Rehabilitation involves more benefits than costs and pays off eventually. This can ultimately be a decisive argument.
Your thesis makes important contributions to SDG 4 (Good Quality Education for All), in that education pays off in the long run, as well as SDG 8 (Decent Work for All) and SDG 10 (Reduce Inequality within Countries). If you were to meet Antonio Guterres, what are the three main points you would ask him to focus on?
- Focus on human capital development by improving people’s skills and knowledge;
- Focus on assisting countries in the implementation and institutionalisation of return-to-work systems;
- Strengthen initiatives such as the BetterWork partnership, which brings diverse groups such as governments, global brands, factory owners, unions and workers together to improve working conditions.
The opinions expressed here are the authors’ own; they do not necessarily reflect the views of UNU.