Natasha Drake, July 15th 2021
The transition from childhood to adulthood is rarely easy for anyone, but young people today face particularly intractable challenges. Civil unrest. Climate change. Abiding social inequality. And of course, worldwide economic depression caused by the pandemic, a depression that followed hot on the heels of the global financial crisis of 2008. Youth (defined as people between the ages of 15–29) are in desperate need of a break.
World Youth Skills Day is July 15th, a day recognized by the United Nations since 2014. It’s an opportunity to highlight the importance of quality technical and vocational training and education (TVET). Without any, it is extraordinarily difficult to build a future and thrive. Young people in both emerging and developed countries can attest to this. Too many are not in school, or not able to find work, or are working under substandard conditions. The situation was dire long before COVID-19.
So today, let’s take a critical look at what young people of the world are facing and what is currently being done to help them. Investing in young people now will be the key to a recovered, more resilient future for everyone.
Global youth employment before 2020
Youth were an especially disadvantaged group of workers even before the pandemic. Millions of young people — 20% of all young adults globally — are what the International Labour Organization (ILO) terms as NEET: not in employment, education, or training. It’s a gendered problem, with young women making up three-quarters of NEET youth overall.
According to statistics from the ILO, when a young person finishes with their education and decides to move into the workforce, securing a position takes 13.8 months on average worldwide. But having a job does not necessarily correlate to financial stability. Far from it: two out of five employed young people in emerging and developing countries are still in deep poverty, earning just a little more than $3 USD a day.
Part of the reason for this is that the jobs available are often in the informal economy — the work is without a contract, either for an unregistered company, for oneself, or for a family business. This affects lower-income countries far more than others. Three out of four young people overall are employed informally. In Africa almost all youth (95%) work informal jobs.
A livelihood in the informal economy means a livelihood that is precarious. As the ILO bluntly puts it, “This is not decent work.” It’s much harder to achieve any kind of financial security, not just because the wages are low, but because the income stream is erratic. It renders its workers vulnerable to exploitation and exacts psychological tolls. There is no job security, no guarantees of labor rights, no social protections.
The pandemic and working young people
The fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has affected young people more severely than others. Youth unemployment grew by 8.7% globally, compared to 3.7% for adults overall, and this rise in youth inactivity was not balanced by reentry into education or job training.
All sectors of the job market were affected by the pandemic, but there were a few that were hit harder than others: retail, food, tourism, and service sectors. Young people are overrepresented in these areas, in addition to often being the “first out” in economic crises. As the World Economic Forum noted in its 2021 Global Risks Report, “Today’s youth already bear the scars of a decade-long financial crisis, an outdated education system, and an entrenched climate crisis, as well as violence in many places.” For millions of young people, there is the real potential that the short-term hurdle to decent employment caused by the pandemic could metastasize into long-term difficulty.
So what new opportunities are there? How can we better equip young people to surmount these problems?
The ILO has recommended a number of policy changes. In light of the vast scope of the difficulties, and the intersectional nature of any individual young person’s challenges, a nuanced and multi-pronged approach is necessary. Some angles include encouraging job creation, protecting worker’s rights, ensuring that protections like unemployment benefits are available to young people, and targeted training programs.
There is good news: outstanding programs for young workers already exist, in countries of all stages of economic development, and they can act as a blueprint for others. YouthConnekt Rwanda was founded by the Rwandan government in 2012 and has empowered thousands of young Rwandans, creating more than 4,000 off-farm jobs along the way. South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme provides temporary positions in a diverse array of sectors (government, private, environmental, cultural, and more), particularly targeting youth, women, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable populations. And Scotland’s Developing the Young Workforce has created a network of employer-led regional groups that help train young people with marketable, in-demand skills. The program helped fuel a 40% collapse in Scotland’s youth unemployment rate.
These are encouraging signs, and far more programs similar to those cited above are needed, particularly those for skills training. By 2025, 40% of a worker’s core skills are expected to change due to new demands from the labor market demands, including those stemming from new digital innovation cycles and emerging green economies, according to UNESCO-UNEVOC’s Bridging Innovation and Learning in TVET (BILT) program. How to prepare young workers for this? BILT suggests that a change is needed in how TVET qualifications and certifications are awarded, as well as a re-evaluation in how the skills are taught in learning environments — in classroom, on-site, and virtually.
Youth and the coming green revolution
The surprising decline in global CO2 emissions in 2020, and some regional reports of improved air pollution and water quality, provided confirmation of how quickly the planet can heal itself when given the chance. Countries around the world are beginning to reach consensus around so-called “green deals.” These measures use investment in environmentally focused policy as the main driver of post-COVID economic recovery. (See those of the European Union, South Korea, and the United States.)
It is vital that young people receive training and support to participate fully in these green transformations. Government programs like those of Rwanda, South Africa, and Scotland cited above are critical, but they must be matched by willingness from private employers to hire and invest in young talent.
Einova believes in the capacity of young people to change the world. The company was created by mechatronic engineer, founder and CEO Igor Spinella when he was only a few years removed from his PhD program. New Einova engineers, product designers, and other employees are often hired immediately upon graduation, putting fresh thinking on the challenges of ultra-efficient energy conversion. The belief in young STEM talent has proven well placed: Einova research has led to 200 international patents in revolutionary energy-efficient technologies that are setting the standard for green power conversion.
The way forward out of the pandemic and into a more equitable world for everyone will be led by those under thirty. If World Youth Skills Day 2021 teaches us anything, it is that we can’t neglect the training and education of the world’s young people any longer.