6.6 Employment and Workforce Development

The issues and opportunities in employment and workforce development in rural areas mirror those in urban areas, with more intensity on some issues over others. One difference is in sector focus. Rural economies are more agriculturally based, so the need to assess labor force demand and match workforce training to that demand requires more attention to the agriculture and agri-business. The recent attention on food security offers opportunities to prepare young people for jobs in agri-business and food security. Other sectors that deserve attention include mining, energy, infrastructure, information technology and communications, financial services, health, education, tourism, hand-made products, and natural resource management. In addition, with rapid government decentralization, there may be opportunities in a range of government-related professions from clerical and accounting work to IT, health services, housing and infrastructure development, project management, etc. 

A second difference is the importance of the informal economy because rural economies are even less regulated than urban economies.  While the informal sector offers opportunities for easy-entry as entrepreneurs, informal sector employment offers the least attractive wages and working conditions. Even when apprenticeships and informal training are available, these opportunities often do not include certification. Without certifications, young people face barriers moving into more formal, better-paid positions. 

A related critical workforce challenge in rural areas is the need to pay attention to working conditions, particularly at home and among migrating youth. At home, young people work unpaid on family farms. Girls often leave school and/or face high burdens of household labor that interfere with their education. Worse, very poor families sometimes send their children to work in other locations for wages that are paid to the families. Sometimes there are no wages; parents send their children to someone else to care for them when they cannot afford to do so themselves. Such migratory work leaves children in extremely vulnerable positions in which they are often terribly exploited. In parts of India, labor brokers loan families money and use sons as collateral, placing them in “apprenticeships” in urban areas, from which they are only liberated when their very poor family repays their debt. Many families and young men are trapped as high interest and endemic poverty keeps families in deep debt. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse when they migrate for work, whether as “housegirls” or factory workers. In Cambodia, girls migrate to cities to work as porters, sleeping on the streets, and often end up as sex workers or sex slaves. Thus, for rural youth, paying attention to working conditions and migratory work patterns is a critical element of employment and workforce development for lower income groups. 

The answer may not be in finding better rural work opportunities, however. Most young people from rural areas will migrate to urban areas. So, part of the challenge of rural workforce development is to help rural young people become as prepared as their urban peers are for the modern, well paid labor market. This is a challenge because of the lower standard of education, fewer resources, and lower infrastructure in rural areas. In addition, even when well prepared, many rural youth have trouble getting jobs because social connections are critical to landing a job, and rural families have fewer connections in cities, particularly in formal institutions that offer the better jobs.

Youth as Job Seekers or Job Creators?

In most economies, young people start out as employees well before they take on the challenge of starting a business or operating a farm. Employment provides invaluable experience that reduces risks if and when a person decides to start their own business. In modern economies, the vast majority of people are workers, not entrepreneurs. Out of necessary, however, in developing economies, large numbers of young people engage in farming activities or end up self-employed to scrape out a living. Isn’t it better to raise some pigs or chickens on your family’s farm than to work terrible hours under harsh conditions for low pay on someone else’s farm? Isn’t it better to sell vegetables for a basic income than to migrate to a city with uncertain prospects and high risks, especially for girls? In recognition of these self-employment paths, many programs support entrepreneurship development for young people, with the enthusiastic cry, “Be a job creator, not a job seeker!”

Detractors shake their heads at what they see as a waste of resources and, worse, pressure for young people to take risks that they are not ready for. Instead, scarce resources should be focused on preparing young people to get high quality jobs, and on strengthening the private sector to create good jobs. Experts calling for the need for more empirical data often cite entrepreneurship development programs as a key target: So many programs, where is the evidence that they work? In what situations and for whom? Compared to what alternatives?