Q&A: JA Worldwide CEO on solving youth unemployment in Latin America

Asheesh Advani, president and CEO of JA Worldwide. Photo by: Amy Lieberman / Devex

Thirty-two million young people — more than two-thirds of them women — are neither attending school nor seeking employment. And last year, global youth unemployment rates rose for the first time in three years.

Practical solutions for Latin America, which is expected to have a youth unemployment rate of more than 17 percent in 2017, were floated during the first day of the World Economic Forum on Latin America in Buenos Aires.

JA Worldwide, one the world’s largest NGOs with more than 470,000 volunteers and mentors, has a unique approach to education, which and, in turn, betters the employment prospects for millions of students worldwide. We talked with the organization’s President, CEO and former alumnus Asheesh Advani about how rethinking traditional education models could help reduce unemployment and prepare young people for their futures. This interview has been edited for length clarity.

There has been talk about putting Latin America back on the map. How do you find the youth unemployment problem in Latin America is different to other regions?

In every place around the world, the feeling is youth unemployment is either a looming or a current crisis. And the belief in whether the people of that region can overcome that crisis varies dramatically by their observation of what has worked and has not. Here in Latin America there is a genuine belief that as you open up access, particularly to Argentina, there is a leap-frogging stage of development. And I think some leaders use that as rhetoric and other leaders use that as a genuine plan.

You have a variety of programs across Latin America. What are you trying to focus on now, and what do you find works best in executing your work?

We reach about 1.1 million young people in the Americas region — Central America, South America and Canada — and 10.5 million young people around the world. We have programs in three areas: entrepreneurship, work readiness and financial literacy. Particularly in this region, our programs in entrepreneurship and work readiness are preparing kids for the future of jobs and the specific skills that we believe are missing in the education system.

This is why we believe we need to supplement [traditional schooling with] skills such as learnability, critical thinking and problem solving. In school they have rote learning; we give them experiences to learn by doing, which gets them much more curious and interested in what they are studying. That connectivity between schools and work is missing because it is hard for schools. It has not necessarily been their historical mandate to connect them to the private sector and education. But if you think about what is happening in the world today, that is what needs to happen, much more.

This might not apply to your work in all countries, but it’s interesting to think about the advice some kids receive from guidance counselors, who may pair them with one career for life.

People get advice from their parents and they are using an old paradigm. Someone has to bridge the gap between what young people are hearing from parents, what young people are hearing from teachers, and what is the reality. I think we play a significant role, but we are not the only ones. We do it through role models. I think that is unique. We have more volunteers than most NGOs: 470,000 volunteers, so the secret sauce is having role models come and meet the kids in different settings, not just in schools. Once they see people who are just like them, it changes their perspective on what is possible.

Just like I did when I was a kid. I went through JA in Canda and it was my first experience being an entrepreneur. I was 14-years-old, and when you call yourself an entrepreneur at the age of 14, you start to believe it is possible at the age of 20, and again at 30, and again at 40. And I became a tech entrepreneur a couple of times over.

What challenges do you see young people bumping up against?

There are many. One is the expectations of their parents and peers. Another is, particularly in this part of the world, the complexity of actually starting a business. You have to have perseverance, and you have to have problem-solving skills — so that is one of the things we teach. When young people make presentations about what they have done, we ask them to tell us what hurdles they overcame. When you are forced at a young age to be self-reflective, you start to believe you are a problem solver. Once you start to believe that, then five years later when you start a business or you do something else in life, which requires you to overcome challenges, you have that self-belief.

So is this the vision that you have for the economy for the next 20 years, that people will be increasingly self-driven, and self-employed?

Yes. And you have to be careful about equating self-efficacy with self-employment. While they are related they are different things. We have JA alumni like Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, who is not self-employed. We have alumni like Mark Cuban and Steve Case and these are people who went through JA who were entrepreneurs, who were problem solvers.

When you bring your programs to countries, is there any sort of pushback you receive from governments?

Our history has been working collaboratively with ministries of education and we are usually welcomed to teach in schools, partly because we do bring our own funding. We don't go to them typically and say, ‘Please fund us.’ We say, ‘We have a program, which is free to schools and cost effective, because we have volunteers who deliver the program.’ We have a very resilient financial model. In every country we have a local CEO and local volunteers, and we are very successful in building relationships with ministries of education to have access to the schools. That’s not everywhere; it takes time and has taken decades, frankly, to build those relationships.

For everything you need to know about the World Economic Forum on Latin America, follow our coverage this week and join the conversation on Latin America's future. Follow @devex, @kellierin, @amylieberman and @raj_devex and tag #la17 and #wef.

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.