On the last days of year 2010, the Colombian Congress passed a rather unnoticed and little commented law to stimulate youth employment. Despite its simplicity, Ley 1492—also known as la ley de formalización y generación de empleo—carries an ambitious goal: reducing Colombia’s pervasive youth (ages 15 to 24) unemployment. Last year it reached 24 percent, and despite projections of GDP growth around 5 percent, it is expected to rise in 2011.
The core of the law can be synthetized by two basic strategies: encouraging young people under 28 to create companies through special state-financed loans and using fiscal discounts to reward companies who hire a young labor force.
But the well-intentioned law risks clashing with a harsh reality: the severe disconnection between the skills we are teaching to our future labor force and what industries need. Most governmental efforts are oriented toward creating more qualified workers, but without reliable information on the abilities that new and growing industries are desperately demanding.
“To take full advantage of the talent of our youth we need much better communication between companies, training centers and policymakers”, according to Rosalba Montoya of Manpower, a global talent firm that specializes both in high-level and entry-level jobs. Montoya pointed-out how the market is demanding more technicians, construction workers and machinery operatives, while most policies still focus on training professionals in already saturated fields.
The lack of reliable and ground–based information on Colombia’s labor market is a true hitch for the law. We not only ignore who are the professionals in the country and what they really know, but we don’t know what human talent Colombia needs in the mid and long term. Do we need more doctors? Engineers? Bakers? Nurses? Biology teachers? Public officials and experts recognize that gathering that vital information can take more than a decade.
That’s in part why those who supported the bill in Congress underline the benefits of a law that is based on a fiscal stimulus. The impact of the law can be measured, they argue, since every job created under this special regime has to be reported on tax forms. Senator Rafael Pardo, who sponsored the bill and worked to include the creation of a National Committee to monitor labor demand both in cities and rural areas, has argued that one of the great things of the law is that it can be evaluated every fiscal year, and so it can be adjusted.
But adjusting a law is much easier than adjusting people’s expectations about a promised future. A youth labor law should also tackle cultural and deep-rooted practices that work against any intention of guaranteeing young people a better future through a decent work. As a number of companies experience first-hand, a lot of the youth, especially those coming from poverty, simply look for a job, but do not really to build a career.
One of the main challenges is to train youth who grew up seeing their parents financially survive with informal and irregular ‘gigs’ to get used to daily routines, strict discipline, hierarchy, and long-term goals. This cultural unpreparedness for a stable job results in worker turnover and a reluctance from companies to hire precisely those who might need the job the most.
Without reliable information everybody is mostly guessing at their labor needs—from government to companies and workers. The risk is much bigger than simply having another innocuous law in our kit of alternatives. An intuitive effort to help young and ambitious people find a job can really turn against them.
Why? We risk generating massive frustration among young and talented people who, often with high doses of personal and financial sacrifice, are trying to breakthrough in the job market. Even worse, young and talented people might end up feeling (hopefully erroneously) that education is overrated in a market of broken promises.
With so little information on the workforce that Colombia needs, entering the job market resembles searching for a seat in a dark and crowded movie theater. You can either sit on the dirty floor wondering why you paid for for such a bad seat or simply, as it might be more often the case, leave the theater. No refunds.
*Lorenzo Morales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and is also a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to focus on the Colombian mining industry.