Hack Your future

In a recent post I asked a BIG question. I discussed how it is often difficult to know if employment programmes focused on supply (training those that are or will be on the labor market) help to make jobs available for unfortunate job-seekers or rather take a vacancy that otherwise would have been filled by someone else.

One way to deal with this challenge is to focus on building skills for job sectors in which there is a lack of qualified workers available. But as training programmes often concentrate on the more vulnerable and less educated, it is often difficult to connect these job seekers with the most promising sectors. An example: Let’s say there is a big demand for highly qualified surgeons. A short-term training intervention can never fill this gap as vulnerable job seekers usually have not gone through med school.

There are however small examples that form an exception to this rule. One of them being computer programming. Take for instance the Dutch organization Hack Your Future. HYF teaches students computer coding. Their students are refugees, mostly from Syria. Normally coming from a different education system, not speaking the language (Dutch in this case) and limited or no experience in computer programming will bar you from a job as programmer. But companies are so much in need of skilled computer programmers they are willing to go out of their ways and provide internships to HYF’s students, potentially leading to a contract.

Yes, this will not fly for all job seekers. And yes, The HYF programme makes use of a very specific market demand in a smart manner. But ICT is a very important sector, especially in the Netherlands with over 250.000 people employed. And demand for jobs is growing. More generally speaking, even if solutions seem small, many ”small solutions’ like these ones can help to answer big questions and big problems.

Life skills … rock on!

I am a few days into an assignment on youth employment in Brazil. Many observations, some of which I will definitely share with you at some later stage. One preliminary observation that might not shock you: Life skills are still rocking your world!

Well, probably not your world, but definitely still the world of many.

Life skills training modules seem to be generally accepted as being key to the average course module, be it in entrepreneurship or employment training. Still, many education institutes are only beginning to understand that such skills are just as important as the technical skills. Here in Brazil some of the education institutes partners in the programme I am visiting are starting to adapt their courses after seeing the positive results in their partnerships with NGOsin which life skills courses are key. Companies partnering with youth support programmes  stress the importance of such skills as well. In other words: Great that you were hired as an administrative assistant, but if you spend half of your day on Facebook chatting to your friends you are not very likely to keep your job. (That was probably one of the worst summaries of life skills curricula ever.)

Yet it would be foolish to overestimate the impact of life skills courses by itself. It is not just the content of life skills courses, but rather the innovative education methods (participatory, lots of group exercises) which create a safe environment. A safe environment in which disenfranchised youth are encouraged to talk about themselves and explore their experiences, feelings and goals in life.

A topic to get back to. In the mean-time, useful Life Skills curricula you know of and/or worked with and found useful, please send them to me. It would be great if we can list a few on this blog to be accessible to all of us. To start off, here is a guide by the Skills 4 Youth Employment (S4YE) coalition.

Youth Employment in Brazil

The next 10 days I will be doing research in Brazil. The organization I work for has been commissioned by Plan International to take a closer look at the critical factors leading to successful youth employment and entrepreneurship programmes. The focus is on short-term programmes in which youth is trained in basic technical skills as well as life skills. We will make use of literature as well as field research in El Salvador, Colombia and Brazil.

The aim will be to come up with a very practical, hands-on, down-to-earth, instrumental set of principles that guide future support programmes. That makes quite some sense as most of the literature on youth employment and entrepreneurship programmes is rather diagnostic. You will find lots of articles on the ‘youth budge’, which might either transform into a demographic dividend or a ticking timebomb with unemployed youth out on the streets as well as more haunting images of very small boats with too many people coming to Europe suffering an ill-advised fate.

Thus I will take a look at a more micro-level. Think of the following: A mentorship component in your programme is all fine and great, to support youth in their quest for employment. But which kind of mentorship model works best? Or: conducting a labor market study is alll wonderful as it gives you an idea which sectors might show growth and provide opportunities for jobs. But does this really give you practical leads for vacancies? If so, how do we make sure a market study is most effective?

Inevitably one big macro-issue will be overlooming this research. The Brazilian economy is largely in shambles and the country is dealing with a political crisis at the same time. Ouch.

What on earth can you possibly do in such a context? Focus on self-employment instead of entrepreneurship? Do a better job at selling youth employment as an ‘interesting business case’ to companies to employ youth? Or should we give up all together? Your thoughts are welcome…

The BIG question

Meet Rado. Rado is 23 and unemployed. He is however lucky enough to be selected for a special training programme of a local NGO, funded with money of Rado’s government. There are a couple of courses he can enroll himself for. Rado chooses a course which will prepare him for the administrative sector. He is lucky, as he makes it through the selection. The training programme helps to build Rado’s skills and in addition he also receives training on ‘soft skills’. Furthermore the programme  introduces him to job search agencies which connect his profile to companies looking to hire. Three months after his training Rado gets offered a position a decent company called Paperchaser. Rado is very, very happy!

This an example of a rather standard employment training programme, focused on the ‘supply’ of potential workers. There is a lot of debate on how effective such programmes really are in helping Rado to find a job. Some argue the scenario sketched out above is pretty realistic, others are less positive.

It is a debate I will get back to as well in the future, probably till the point that you get very tired of it. However one other question, just as relevant, is often neglected.

Let us assume for a moment that Rado finds a job because of the support programme. But also Bob, his best friend and also a participant in the programme, gets a job offer. And the same goes for Sergio and Harry, Larissa and Rosa. Imagine all participants in the programme find employment. Everybody is so happy!

But what does this mean in the larger context? Was the company Paperchaser going to hire someone anyway? Probably. But in that case are we not merely discussing rotation of jobs instead of job creation?
In other words: What does that mean for Raphael? He is 23 years old, just like Rado. Although he has similar skills he is unemployed. He might have had the job if it was not for the training programme.

In the words of Jennifer Bremer, visiting professor at SAIS-Hopkins, in a comment on a very critical post by Chris Blattman on training programmes:

Training programs that do not lead to jobs are a cruel hoax visited on vulnerable people. Even if some people do get jobs, I would argue that these programs often just reshuffle who gets the few jobs that are out there. This is bad enough, but to the extent that these programs give the appearance of addressing youth unemployment, without actually doing so, they are complicit in governments’ failures to address the real constraints to job creation.

Full article here

And we can make it even more complex: What if Rado grew up in a very challenging environment, raised in a poor single parent household? Does this make if ‘more fair’ for a support programme to intervene?

BIG questions indeed, something I will take a closer look at in the near future as well. In the mean time, if you have any articles or interesting insights related to this please share so I can take them on board. Rado would like to know.