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AQ Feature

Today's Latin American Dream: A Decent Job

Youth unemployment is rising fast. Here's a plan on how to tackle it.
Citi
Paulo Fridman/Bloomberg/Getty

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This article is adapted from AQ’s issue on youth in Latin America.

“A door to a new world of possibilities.”

That is how Marisol, 26, described enrolling with a local program that teaches young women to write computer code. After six months in Laboratoria, she became a junior front-end developer, escaping the low-skill/low-pay job cycle to start a high-skill/high-paid career in the digital sector. Imagine how many young people like Marisol around the world and throughout Latin America possess the optimism and drive to get them in front of doors that lead to economic opportunity, yet lack the keys to unlock them.

The scope of the challenges young people face is enormous. More than 1 billion of the world’s population is between 15 and 24 years of age — the largest single generation in human history. And if you expand the definition of “youth” to include all people under 30, the number jumps to more than half the global population. Ninety percent of these youth live in developing countries that struggle to deliver what these young people need most to launch their lives — education and jobs.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, youth are affected by economic turbulence and, in some cases, fragility due to natural disasters or conflict. These conditions, including slowing economic growth in many countries, exacerbate the challenges youth face when seeking to enter the labor market. In the region, unemployment rates among young people are often three times higher than those of adults at-large. Compared to the rest of the world, Latin America and the Caribbean is the region expected to show the largest increase in the youth unemployment rate, which is estimated to reach 17.1 percent in 2017, up from 15.7 percent in 2015.

The outlook they face is mixed.

Of the 108 million young people in Latin America and the Caribbean, 20 percent neither study nor work and a large portion of them have stopped looking for work altogether. Among the youth who manage to overcome economic challenges and enter the labor market, 60 percent do so in informal jobs with low wages and no benefits. Yet, since 1991, policies and infrastructure have been implemented in Latin America and the Caribbean that enable youth to earn living wages, halving the number of those who can be labeled as working poor. Today, young people who work yet live in poverty account for less than 10 percent of the region’s workers, although the pace of progress has slowed considerably in the past five years.

Tackling the youth employment challenge

Recognizing the youth employment challenge in the region and globally, in February 2016 the United Nations launched the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, its first comprehensive effort focused on this issue. Led by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Global Initiative is a unique catalyst to scale up action and impact on youth employment. It is comprised of governments, the private sector, youth organizations and civil society, social partners, the UN system, foundations, parliamentarians, regional and multilateral organizations, academia and the media. The initiative is a truly global and inclusive effort to help build a better future for young women and men.

In collaboration with its partners, the Global Initiative is developing innovative action plans to enhance country-level investments across the following areas: green jobs for youth; digital skills for youth; quality apprenticeships; youth in the rural economy; youth in the informal economy; youth entrepreneurship and self-employment; youth in fragile situations; and youth, 15 to 17 years of age, working in hazardous occupations.

To inform this work and better help Latin American and Caribbean youth succeed in a fast-evolving labor market, it is crucial to know their concerns and aspirations. The Citi Foundation and polling firm Ipsos recently reached out to more than 7,000 young people across 45 global cities, including Buenos Aires, Lima and other major cities in the region, to learn more about just that.

The results, published in the Global Youth Survey 2017: Economic Prospects & Expectations, showed that urban youth are notably hopeful and they believe in themselves and their futures. Over 80 percent of youth surveyed in Latin America trust that they have more opportunities to achieve their professional goals and to obtain professional success than the generation before them. However, the fact remains that for young people seeking work, job opportunities are scarce and there are few avenues that enable youth to obtain the right skills needed for the jobs that are available.

To harness the enormous potential of these young people, the Global Initiative aims to find innovative ways to facilitate young people’s transition into the formal economy, helping them build a foundation for prosperous futures. Meeting these expectations requires substantive efforts from governments and social partners in the region. In particular, it is essential that new forms of employment lead to decent work for youth, as this contributes to a virtuous circle of economic growth.

Skills, work-based learning, and the first job

Young people are demanding resources that will prepare them for today’s jobs, while equipping them with the skills needed to succeed in tomorrow’s labor market. The ILO’s work in Latin America and the Caribbean has revealed the critical importance that employers attach not only to competencies and practical skills directly linked to job requirements, but also to the “soft skills.” Leadership skills, problem-solving and the ability to take decisive action and approach tasks with confidence and creativity are key. This is why programs that take a holistic approach to youth development, that are tailored to individual needs, and offer longer-term support, such as coaching and mentoring, are essential and increasingly embedded in the Citi Foundation and ILO’s actions in the region.

Eighty-one percent of the Latin American youth surveyed by the Citi Foundation and Ipsos believe apprenticeships or internships determine career success, but nearly just as many believe there are not enough of these opportunities available to them in their cities. Matching young women and men to work-based learning opportunities enables them to further cultivate skills acquired through education and training and have meaningful exposure to the world of work. To bridge the gap between employer needs and worker competencies, the Citi Foundation partners with regional organizations that coach youth to build skills needed for employment in growing industries.

And when we talk about Latin America, we would be remiss not to discuss the tech sector — one of the largest growing industries in the region and globally. Of the Latin American youth with aspirations of pursuing careers in the tech sector, only half have jobs in tech. This suggests that efforts to accelerate the process of productive transformation to a more knowledge-intensive digital economy — such as investments in ICT infrastructure, access and connectivity — should complement initiatives that support youth employment.

A positive first job experience determines a young person’s path to career success. Over half of youth surveyed in Latin America feel that on-the-job experience would make it easier to transition into stable and meaningful employment. Programs such as Primer Empleo, or First Job, and quality apprenticeship schemes have incentivized business to hire youth and allowed young people to start their careers through practical learning.

Together, making a difference for young people

There is more work to do, and the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth provides a unique platform to nurture the aspirations of today’s youth and those of the next generation. Only by joining forces with multiple actors from the public and private sector, social partners, civil society and beyond we can envision a world in which young women and men have access to decent jobs everywhere.

To bridge the gap and help address the youth employment challenge, partners of the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth need to work collaboratively to support the world’s 1.2 billion young people in reaching their full potential. In this context and building from the success of the 2014 Pathways to Progress initiative, in February 2017, the Citi Foundation announced a new commitment to urban youth with an additional $100 million philanthropic investment to impact the lives of an additional 500,000 youth in cities around the world.

The costs of not prioritizing youth are too significant, both economically and socially. All of us have roles to play, and the Citi Foundation and the ILO are privileged to take part in important work that can transform the lives of young people like Marisol, whose collective future will determine the world’s.

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Brandee McHale is president of the Citi Foundation and director of corporate citizenship at Citi. She oversees the Citi Foundation’s global grantmaking strategy and leads Citi’s citizenship efforts. She is a staunch advocate for youth empowerment, and under her leadership, the Citi Foundation launched Pathways to Progress, the largest single commitment in the foundation’s 20-year history.

Azita Berar Awad is the director of the employment policy department that leads ILO’s action for promoting full, productive, decent and freely chosen employment. She leads the advisory work, research and technical cooperation in relevant fields such as youth employment and innovate employment creation schemes.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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