More rigor, less fragmentation: An agenda for youth unemployment

A young woman at an assembly line training by the United Nations Development Programme’s vocational project to address youth unemployment in Jordan. What can the international community do to help unemployed young people? Photo by: Alessandra Blasi / UNDP / CC BY-NC-ND

The world is facing a worsening youth employment crisis. Young people today are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, and more than 73 million youth worldwide are looking for work.

Indeed, the International Labor Organization has warned of a “scarred generation” of young workers having to pay the price of a dangerous cocktail of high unemployment, precarious and low-quality temporary work, and persistently high working poverty in both the developed and developing world.

So what exactly can be done for the jobless, disconnected, disaffected young unemployed — the so-called Generation U — and how can the international community help break this vicious cycle to get young people into education and training, create secure jobs and empower youth to drive economic growth by keeping them employed?

According to U.S.-based nonprofit research institute RTI International, one way to address some of the most intractable problems of our time — from youth unemployment to poverty and food security — is for the international development community to join together and redouble efforts around workforce development.

To galvanize efforts in the sector, RTI has announced the launch of the Global Center for Youth Employment, a virtual, multidisciplinary platform that aims to bring together a wide range of institutions and thought leaders to research new approaches and push bold ideas in this area.

Andrew Baird, director of the economic growth group at RTI, said that there had been renewed focus on workforce development over the past five or six years, but it has been fragmented and uncoordinated. The gravity of the situation now necessitates more cohesive and concerted action.

“Just as the microfinance industry did almost 25 years ago, we’re coming together to find common ground, developing common metrics so that we can take a more systemic view of the challenges we face,” he told Devex.

RTI’s business case for workforce development

‘New ways to create and share’

The Global Center for Youth Employment will be headed by Peter Joyce, a senior researcher within RTI’s Workforce and Economic Opportunities program area. Joyce, like many of his peers, worries about high youth unemployment around the world, from the Middle East to Europe and beyond.

“Traditionally, when there’s a recession, youth are disproportionately impacted — the last ones in and the first ones out whenever there are layoffs. But this ‘Great Restructuring’ is having a much bigger toll and I think we’re on the threshold of a huge change,” he told Devex.

In order to assess how it could make an impact, RTI first looked at its own expertise around education, agriculture, governance, labor market information systems and data.

“We started thinking about how we could bring together those capabilities and talents,” Joyce said. “But then we began to think even bigger than that: It is such a huge issue that we needed to look outside of RTI, to the private sector, to NGOs — even to our competitors.”

Ami Thakkar, a senior specialist on youth and workforce development at RTI, agreed.

“The problem is too grave and the task is too large for us not to look at new ways to create and share more data,” she said. “Whoever that benefits, the point is that right now, there are large gaps in being able to show scalable solutions and provide labor market information that both meet the needs of improving education quality and labor demands.”

No one organization can single-handedly solve protracted workforce challenges — a clear case for working together, RTI leaders decided.

A science-driven agenda

To its founders, the Global Center for Youth Employment’s virtual and collaborative nature is a big part of its appeal.

“We want to embody the changing workplace, to be flexible and adaptable,” Thakkar said. “There’s recognition that industry needs to change to adapt to a new generation of workers — who have different values, different skill sets, are tech-savvy, have a global perspective, and want something different from the workplace than the generation before them. It’s important that industry recognizes, values and integrates these needs.”

“The development community talks a lot about private sector engagement and we’ve seen a lot of great examples, but in workforce development, it’s really non-negotiable.”

— Ami Thakkar, a senior specialist on youth and workforce development at RTI

The center’s research agenda will be collaborative; there won’t be stagnant research units but teams working together with universities, nonprofits or businesses on priority issues. The center will gather evidence, develop tools and publish its findings on workforce development challenges and solutions.

Four of the center’s priorities include:

● Defining a robust research agenda with genuine scientific rigor. That means, according to Joyce, “unpacking what we even mean by youth employment and what the phenomenon means to national versus global, rural versus urban, sectoral versus cultural settings.”

● Choosing evidence-based prototypes and deciding on what evidence to gather.

● Developing tools and accelerating the replication and scaling up of the center’s activities.

● Reviewing the impact of the center’s ideas to ensure it constantly approaches its work in the most effective way possible.

RTI won’t drive the agenda, said Baird, adding that he’d like the center focus on an area that recruiters and job seekers tend to talk a lot about: soft skills.

“We hear so much about the importance of soft skills to the private sector, but how do we figure out ways to measure them that allows us to know whether we’re achieving success?” he asked. “And even then, are the soft skills that land you a job the same ones that allow you to keep a job, get you promoted four or five years down the line?”  

Beyond the immediate ‘quick fix’

In the development community, Thakkar said, there is all too often a rush to fix urgent problems without first stepping back and thinking more rigorously about whether a solution will work, whether it is cost-effective and whether it is scalable.

“We don’t get the time as a community to do that,” she suggested. “One of the things the center can do is to consider some of the complex, bigger-picture questions like jobs and then provide contributions that are different to an immediate quick fix.”

More than any other area, she said, workforce development requires people from different backgrounds to come together and discuss the ways they work and the values they hold.

“The development community talks a lot about private sector engagement and we’ve seen a lot of great examples,” she said, “but in workforce development, it’s really non-negotiable.”  

With the center as a facilitator of partnership, RTI is seeking a more structured and deliberate dialogue between public and private spheres. It may involve, for instance, aligning training institutions with private sector needs and creating a policy environment at national and subnational levels that encourages investment in workforce development, for instance. The goal: an ecosystem that is conducive to creating good workforce development.

RTI is preparing to make a significant investment of several million dollars in the workforce development sector and toward the Global Center for Youth Employment over the next decade. Other partners don’t have to make financial investments in the center, though.

“We’re looking rather at partners who can add value through their assets or core expertise,” said Thakkar.

The center will pool the expertise of a range of organizations with complementary expertise, focus and resources. Confirmed partners include:

● Companies: Accenture, Land O’Lakes International Development Group, Making Cents International

● NGOs: Plan USA, Partners of the Americas, International Rescue Committee, International Youth Foundation

● A foundation: International House

● Research and academic institutions: George Washington University, Community Colleges for International Development, ConnectEd: The California Center on Colleges and Careers.

Talks are ongoing with representatives from a variety of organizations, including the International Finance Corp. and the U.K. Department for International Development as well as MasterCard and the Ford Foundation.

RTI is also keen to bring “unorthodox” partners into the fold.

“We’ve created a bicycle wheel, with the hub and the spokes reaching out to potential partners,” Baird said. “This is going to be an open party here — one that is very much inclusive, not exclusive. This is a huge issue that is going to require the input of a lot of different organizations, so we have to identify what assets we have as groups come to the table, identify what we want to do over time, and then identify and fill the gaps.”

Andrew Baird: Let’s take a more systemic approach to workforce development

RTI International is a proud sponsor of the 2014 Devex Partnerships & Career Forum in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where it will lead an Oct. 21 panel session on Africa’s rising workforce.

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About the author

  • Richard Jones

    In his role as Editorial Director Richard oversees content for digital series, reports and events, leading a talented team of writers and editors, conducting high-level video interviews and moderating panels at events. Previously partnerships editor and an associate editor at Devex, Richard brings to bear 15 years of experience as an editor in institutional communications, public affairs and international development. Based in Barcelona, his development experience includes stints in the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Ecuador, as well as extensive work travel in Africa and Asia.