What is youth-led programming? How can it enhance economic programs for youth?

Mercy Corps

USAID recently released a groundbreaking policy on Youth in Development. One of the primary themes focused on the importance of youth engagement, which includes incorporating perspectives and voices of young people in each element of program planning. Though the policy was the first of its kind, this thinking is not new to the youth space. We often hear language such as “putting youth in the driver’s seat” and “empowering youth to shape their future,” particularly when talking about economic opportunities for young people. But what does youth-led programming actually mean? And how can youth-led initiatives enhance employability and employment programming?

Mercy Corps Youth Leaders in Kenya.

We all know that successful economic programs must be rooted in local market realities. If we train youth with specific skills and do not link these activities to actual income opportunities, we are essentially setting them up to fail. This scenario can exacerbate existing frustrations that young people have about their economic situation and can create dangerous expectations in conflict and post-conflict areas.

Because of this, comprehensive market assessments are a critical first step in designing any youth economic program. Once local, viable, and current opportunities for employment and self-employment have been identified, skill programs can be built accordingly. Mercy Corps has found that engaging youth in these initial market assessments is a powerful vehicle to both identify these opportunities and enable young people to build skills and understand their local economies. In complex environments such as Kenya, Liberia, and Indian-administered Kashmir, youth have been able to develop and adapt questionnaires and surveys, administer tools to potential employers, and engage in data entry and analysis.

Through this participatory, youth-led method, young people are able to gain firsthand knowledge of their labor markets. Conducting assessments enables young people to identify concrete opportunities for internships and jobs, highlight high potential growth sectors, and determine appropriate roles for youth in strategic value chains. Youth are also discovering the barriers that exist between themselves and employers, as well as the specific skillsets businesses are seeking. For example, in Mercy Corps’ youth-led labor market assessment in Kenya, young people learned that more than 60 percent of surveyed employers believe that young people have unrealistic salary expectations. Communication skills were also identified as key skills for potential employees. This type of information not only informs the youth who participate in the surveys but also allows programs to tailor  life skills trainings to these contextualized findings, so that youth can build capacities to respond to the very specific needs of that labor market.

With youth-led labor market assessments, the process is almost as important as the findings. Across countries, young people believe that participating has built self-confidence and important life skills, such as communication techniques when speaking with potential employers. The assessment facilitates valuable interactions between youth and employers, thus increasing the social capital of youth by expanding their professional networks. The process is also important for building positive perceptions of youth within the private sector. In Liberia, one young assessor shared that the business owner she surveyed told her that prior to meeting her, he had not thought of youth as articulate and professional individuals. Additionally, in areas where opportunities for practical experience are difficult to come by, the youth-led process gives participants a concrete assignment to place on their CVs. Thus, this youth-led process often increases the employability of youth.

As youth and youth programs continue to receive the attention of donors and the international community, we must ensure that young people actually are leading the way. They are eager. They are capable. And facilitating a process where youth can gain firsthand knowledge on the importance of markets and market-based initiatives ultimately enhances their capabilities and their opportunities.