Almost 74 million young people aged 15-24 were looking for work in 2014, nearly three times the number of adults, according to the International Labor Organization.

The situation is not expected to improve. More than 212 million people will be out of work in 2019, up from 201 million today, said a 2015 ILO report. As a result, more youth will be trapped in poverty, reducing their nations’ economic growth and sowing the seeds for political instability.

Experts on education and entrepreneurship from Duke University, RTI International and other organizations gathered last Friday, April 7, to discuss the most significant barriers to youth employment and what is being done to break the cycle of poverty and inequality worldwide. The talk was part of the Duke-RTI Professors and Practitioners in Conversation series.

Hurdles to youth employment

Panelists cited a number of reasons for the surge in youth unemployment and why it has been difficult to address.

Catherine Honeyman, visiting scholar at the Duke Center for International Development (DCID) and director of Ishya Consulting, recently released a book on the entrepreneurship curriculum in Rwanda’s secondary schools. She said that basic education in many countries does little to prepare children and youth for the “local reality.”

“We have this dichotomy that’s been set up between education and work,” she said. “Young people can graduate from the entire basic education system without knowing the work their parents do and the skills their parents are applying. Children should understand how they fit into the local economy.”

Chilton Rogers, director of community engagement at the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, said that poverty and inequality are still huge barriers to workforce development, even in the United States. The restructuring of the economy and the resulting decline in manufacturing in North Carolina have created an environment where youth have lost hope. As a result, they often turn to drugs.

“Even if these youth can get jobs,” she said, “They can’t pass the drug test.”

One issue is that career development lacks a focus on developing demand-driven skills, said Sylvia Nassar, a professor at North Carolina State University who is conducting a study with RTI International on key guidelines for advancing workforce development.

“There is a disconnect between policymakers, researchers and practitioners,” Nassar said. “We haven’t been able to move together in the same direction.”

Developing human and financial capital

Panelists agreed that more can be done to prepare youth for the workforce and support businesses that employ them. First, governments should provide more incentives for small enterprises, panelists said.

“A lot of tax breaks are given to large enterprises, but what is often overlooked is that most disadvantaged youth begin in small and also micro enterprises,” Honeyman said. “There’s not an institutional infrastructure in place to help them.”

There is also work to be done with existing businesses to help them develop strategies to bring on young people, she said.

When North Carolina lands a large auto or manufacturing plant, it is usually in or near a city, Rogers said. This will do little to help youth struggling in rural areas. Instead the Rural Center focuses on the other “two legs of the stool”: entrepreneurship and supporting existing small businesses.

The Rural Center’s Microenterprise Loan Program provides loans of up to $25,000 to people who have sound ideas for starting or expanding a business, but may not qualify for bank loans. In addition, the center runs the Rural Economic Development Institute (REDI), which provides participants with techniques that enhance their skills as community leaders.

“You can throw money at a problem all day long, but if you don’t have the right people in leadership you’re wasting your time and money,” Rogers said.

Making education relevant

Second, basic education should be redesigned to give youth the skills they need for available jobs, said Peter Joyce, senior researcher and general manager of the Global Center for Youth Employment with RTI. He has been working with a project called Linked Learning, which was launched by the James Irvine Foundation to design career pathways for high school students in the U.S.

“You could choose a pathway around health and biosciences, or digital and media arts, or construction and architectural design,” he said. “All the content is taught in the context of the industry.”

Honeyman suggested offering internships to children early, before they are saddled with too many responsibilities at home. Although her suggestion drew questions from the audience about whether unpaid internships take advantage of people in desperate situations, Honeyman argued that brief exposure to a job could give youth access to a different sector of the economy that they would never encounter through their normal social networks.

There is still a place for apprenticeships, Joyce said, noting that Switzerland does an admirable job exposing young people to the work environment before graduation. However, there is still a stigma.

“Parents shy away from [apprenticeship] because of the blue collar connotation, and employers shy away from it because of state control and regulation,” he said.

Joyce confessed that the issue of youth unemployment can be daunting in a rapidly changing world. In many ways, he said, experts are just as confounded by what the future holds.

“Globalization and technology are not going away, and they are tremendous forces for change in the workplace,” he said. “We’re trying to prepare youth for a world when we don’t even know what it will look like.”

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