Unemployment, informality and inactivity threaten the future of nearly 106 million young people in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), severely limiting the region’s economic potential and ability to fight poverty. According to the 2007 International Labor Organization (ILO) report entitled “Decent Work and Youth in Latin America,” not only do young people in LAC face an unemployment rate almost three times higher than that of adults, but they also represent 46% of total unemployment.
Even when a young person has an occupation, it is much more likely to be irregular and more precarious than that of an adult, a condition that affects two out of every three young workers in LAC. These trends are not showing signs of improvement, as youth unemployment rates are higher today than they were in the 1990s.
Not surprisingly, studies show that decent work – which includes concepts such as productive and safe work, labor rights, adequate income and social protection – is one of the main demands of young Latin Americans. In a recent study done by the Institute of Public Opinion at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Perú, young people cited unemployment as their number one concern over others such as AIDS, violence, unwanted pregnancy, sexual violence and cancer. They also associated the meaning of “triumph in life” with “having a job one enjoys” and “being successful at work.”
The issue of youth employment in Latin America is gaining importance on the international stage, playing a significant role in discussions at the 2005 Summit of the Americas. In 2006, 23 countries from the Americas declared youth employment as a priority in the Hemispheric Agenda on Decent Work. Leaders agreed to encourage better training and job access for young people with a specific target to halve in the next ten years the percentage of young people who neither study nor work.
The current challenge, then, is to turn these commitments into practical, efficient policy and actions that will improve the lives of millions of young Latin Americans.
The case of Brazil – where a majority of the country’s 31.3 million young people between the ages of 16 and 24 are affected by unemployment, precarious social inclusion and a lack of access to adequate education – merits consideration. With a youth unemployment rate of 17.7% (3.8 million young people) and over 10 million young informal workers, the Brazilian experience will likely be highly relevant to other countries in the region.
Since 2004, there has been a concerted effort on the part of the Brazilian government to institutionalize the issue of youth employment, both at the international level as a lead country for the United Nations’ Youth Employment Network (YEN) and at the national level through the creation of the National Youth Secretariat and the National Youth Council.
Additionally, there are several government programs in place to target Brazil’s most disadvantaged youth, such as the National Program for the Inclusion of Youth (Projovem). Throughout these processes, the government has engaged in social dialogue with civil society and international agencies.
Despite the government’s efforts, a paradox persists. Brazilians, like Latin Americans in general, make large investments in education so that youth can achieve a better quality of life; on average, those aged 20 to 24 have studied three years longer than those 25 and older. Nevertheless, statistics show that investment in education, even when coupled with positive national social and economic indicators, has not been sufficient for youth to attain decent work.
One possible explanation is related to the quality and suitability of the skills and knowledge acquired; if young people are poorly educated or lack the skills required for the jobs offered, more education does not necessarily translate into positive employment outcomes.
The missing piece of the puzzle may lie in the lack of a structural youth employment policy in Brazil that is able to coordinate and integrate existing government programs and policies that specifically address both the demand and the supply side of the youth labor market.
A recent government attempt to achieve this is the Projovem, which aims to integrate six previously separate youth programs in order to provide educational, social and professional qualification opportunities to 4.2 million young people in socially vulnerable situations over the next three years.
It is too early to tell whether or not this program will be successful in matching professional skills with employers’ demands; future results will need to be evaluated. Nevertheless, Brazil still lacks an overarching youth employment policy that guarantees access to decent work as a right for all young people.
In addition, a specific youth employment policy in Brazil would allow for the coordination of concerted actions by the private sector. For example, the ILO is currently implementing in Brazil its Project for the Promotion of Youth Employment in Latin America. One of the innovative aspects of the project, funded by the Spanish government, involves practical training and job placement programs for youth by Spanish companies in sectors such as communications, information technology, energy, banking and human resources.
While there are several such programs in existence, efforts to date have been mostly piecemeal. A youth employment policy could mobilize the private sector on a larger scale, allowing it to act not only as an agent of economic growth, but also as a driving force in job creation and social development for youth.
There have never been as many young people between the ages of 15-24 in Latin America as there are today. Demographic forecasts show that this population growth will continue until 2015. If governments are able to “get it right” by moving the number one demand of youth (decent work) to the center of the political agenda and by capitalizing on the large, dynamic, creative and talented young work force at their disposition, they may be able to significantly reduce poverty and strengthen social cohesion and democracy.
By looking for windows of opportunity – such as the development of a youth employment policy in Brazil – governments, the private sector, civil society and youth themselves can move young Latin Americans from a position of vulnerability and powerlessness in the job market, to one of full citizenship with the right to decent and productive work.
Jenna-Dawn Shervill holds an MA degree from the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs in Ottawa and is currently working as a Youth Employment Network Associate at the International labor Organization Office in Brazil. blue square
This article was originally published in Focal Point – http://www.focal.ca.