The Global Youth Economic Opportunities (YEO) field unites practitioners, policymakers, private sector companies, funders, researchers, educators, and young people who are tackling one of the most pressing issues of our time: how to increase and improve economic opportunities for youth. The lack of economic opportunities for young people impacts families, destabilizes communities, stalls economies, and undermines the aspirations of a whole generation. The problem is acute: at 12.7 percent the global youth unemployment rate is the highest in history. Young people are three times more likely than adults to be out of a job. While dramatic, those rates do not reflect the estimated 6 million young people, mostly in developed countries, who are discouraged and no longer seeking employment. Unemployment rates also do not capture the experience of 200 million young people, mostly in the informal economies of developing countries, who work but earn under USD$2 a day. Statistics do not reflect the frustration of educated young people who find their lives stalled, with few tangible returns to show for their investments in education.
How to confront this situation? Members of the YEO field seek diverse and multi-faceted solutions for this global problem. Making Cents International’s 2012 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference (GYEOC) convened more than 400 of the field’s stakeholders from 54 countries in Washington, DC from September 11-13, 2012. Participants discussed lessons learned, shared challenges, learned from evaluation, identified priorities, and pinpointed existing gaps in the field. Field-wide advances in learning documented and discussed at the 2012 GYEOC included the following:
We know more about youth. Participants discussed lessons learned in incorporating life cycle approaches into program design; addressing critical transitions in young peoples’ lives and their impact on financial behaviors; understanding the nuances of youth time use; exploring synergies between economic opportunities, health, and protection outcomes; and asking better questions (linked to the appropriate evaluation methods) to understand young perceptions, experiences, and behaviors. More needs to be done to ensure that we harmonize programs and policies to reflect what we already know, and what we are still learning, about youth.
- Skills, skills, skills. We know the importance of skill-building—of technical, life, soft, 21st Century, and people skills—from anecdote and now evidence. Though the labels attached to skill sets may vary, researchers and practitioners agree that meaningful skill-building transforms employment, entrepreneurship, and financial capability programming while equipping youth to deal with daily challenges. Research with the private sector and informal employers show that soft skills are in demand, especially in the informal economy. Gabriele Zedlmeyer, Vice President for Sustainability and Social Innovation at HP, commented, “I don’t look for grades. We need people that can work across borders, cultures, languages. People that want to invent all the time. I’m looking for that skill. Sixty-five percent of students in K-12 will end up in jobs that don’t exist today. They will need to invent those jobs that don’t yet exist.” Branka Minic, Director of Global Corporate Affairs for ManpowerGroup, similarly commented, “Employers hire for hard skills but they certainly fire for lack of soft skills.” Evaluations also reveal that interventions lacking skill-building are less likely to have a sustained impact. Conversations about skill-building raise the issue of quality and relevance in all forms of education, and how best to bridge the skills mismatch between education and employment.
We know the gaps and bottlenecks in policy, regulation, financing, and advocacy. Filling those gaps and eliminating bottlenecks in a systematic ways is still a work-in-progress; but the field has pinpointed barriers with more precision and identified national and regional solutions. Linkages between youth-inclusive financial services (YFS) and youth enterprise development (YED) initiatives have contributed to more comprehensive offerings of financing mechanisms for youth enterprises of various sizes and stages of development. Making the “business case” for YEO to private sector and financial institutions has expanded beyond an emphasis on services to one of capabilities.
We need to be more inclusive with our YEO initiatives. The impact of the global unemployment crisis on vulnerable or marginalized populations is of particular concern in conflict-affected environments, countries characterized by income inequality, and communities affected by crime and violence. In especially those places, YEO efforts form critical components of violence prevention, peace building and reconstruction, and equitable economic development initiatives. This year the YEO field discussed different approaches that target marginalized or vulnerable young people with disabilities, rural adolescent girls and young women, and disadvantaged urban populations, among others.
- We know more about how and when to engage in rigorous evaluation. While the field is benefiting from a deepening evidence base, we must further close the learning loop between evaluation and program design; finding new ways to connect practitioners to evaluation results and ensuring organizations apply the learnings they gain from evaluations. Organizations, understanding the need for accountability, struggle with how to increase rigor in evaluation given budget and time constraints. Practitioners generally believe that donors need to better align evaluation expectations with existing funding while evaluators note that levels of rigor in evaluation need to reflect organizational capacity, learning goals, and funding and timing constraints.
The 2012 Conference spotlighted technology’s role in promoting economic opportunities for youth. Participants discussed the role of technology in:
Education and Learning: From technology use in teacher training and classroom learning to reconfiguring education, especially high education, by refining online learning;
Access: Technology use, from software to mobile to Internet to hybrid models facilitates young people’s access to YEO services by extending the reach of banking, mentoring, peer learning, entrepreneurial education, and employment information and opportunities;
- Data Collection: Modernizing data collection, assessment, surveys, and monitoring to reduce turnaround time and facilitate timely data-driven decision-making.
- Digital Engagement, Leadership, and Innovation: Innovative models promote young people as leaders of technological skill-building in their communities while digital engagement seeks to engage young people and other stakeholders through websites, social media, and other forms of participation.
The focus on technology also brought to light the challenges various stakeholders face when they’re attempting to support young people in their efforts to obtain jobs or start businesses in growth-oriented technology sectors. Developing transferable skills sets, increasing the access young people have to appropriate financial services, and conducting labor market assessments to plan for current and future economic opportunities within this sector were areas of intense deliberation. Technology companies, such as HP, are intentionally investing in young people and recognize their leadership in adopting and creating technology that is transforming businesses, sectors, and entire economies. A few leaders within the YEO field are engaging young people as full partners in efforts to utilize technology in programming and catalyze economic opportunities for youth in technology sectors. They offer models to explore for replication and scale, and are challenging the field to evolve in creativity and innovation. Through the conference’s Spotlight on Technology and the following five learning tracks, diverse stakeholders demonstrated that the YEO field is maturing as a whole, narrowing its gaps in understanding and practice, and addressing complex challenges through multi-sectoral lenses:
- Workforce development
- Youth enterprise development
- Youth-inclusive financial services and financial capabilities
- Adolescent girls and young women
- Monitoring, evaluation and impact assessment
The field is still young and practitioners, policymakers, funders, researchers, educators, and youth leaders are urgently trying to adapt to the changes our global economies and labor markets are experiencing and will experience for the foreseeable future. Results, lessons learned, and promising practices from an increasing number of evaluations and knowledge sharing activities are building an evidence base and contributing to informed practice and policymaking. We must continue to collaboratively engage across sectors through a systemic approach that builds on proven practice and supports innovation.
 The term youth generally applied to young people, ages 15-24 years old. Many sectors of the YEO field, including Youth Financial Services and Capabilities and the Adolescent Girls and Young Women, refers to a broader category of “young people” ages 10-14 years old and sometimes younger children.
 Excerpted from comments of José Manuel Salazar, Executive Director of Employment at the International Labour Organization (ILO); statistics can also be found at: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_185950.pdf, pg. 3
 Ibid., pg. 3