What We Know About Rural Youth’s Entry Into Employment
With the launch of the U.S. Government’s Global Food Security Strategy (GFSS) last year, both employment and livelihoods have come to the forefront. Given the high presence of youth in the labor force in many GFSS countries, the role of agriculture compared with other sectors in youth employment is receiving increasing attention in programs.
In partnership with the Bureau for Food Security (BFS), USAID’s Chief Economist convened a workshop this past October bringing researchers, USAID staff, and implementers together for an evidence-based exchange on the barriers to youth’s entry into work in rural and peri-urban areas.
Louise Fox, Chief Economist for USAID, opened the discussion by highlighting the customary categorization of youth employment as an urban issue, resulting in a lack of evidence for rural approaches. The invisibility of the challenges facing rural youth has, in turn, created blind spots for employment programming. The need to better understand youth’s role in rural economic development is key, as government and donor agencies will increasingly need to ensure that programming improves rural, semi-urban, and peri-urban livelihoods for youth. Learning lessons from successes and failures of urban youth employment programming was also a central theme of the workshop.
James Thurlow of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) provided important context to the discussion. As much of Africa’s economic growth in the past 15 years has been driven by shifting from subsistence farming to commercial agriculture, many economic opportunities for off-farm, ag-related activities — such as transport — have emerged. This trend, Thurlow argued, signals an opportunity to add value further downstream in the agricultural value chain. Meanwhile, increased rural incomes create demand for goods and services supplied by household business in rural areas and towns. Much of this off-farm work tends to pay more, generally making it more attractive to youth, although youth often engage in both farm and nonfarm activities to try to make ends meet.
Constraints to entry, however, remain an important question. Owen Ozier of the World Bank and Jessica Goldberg of the University of Maryland noted that interventions for entry into non-farm enterprises are under-studied, with most interventions focusing on individuals already in the business (training to boost existing sales, for example). Danielle Resnick of IFPRI highlighted land security issues and shifts in livelihood aspirations, as youth are increasingly choosing education over agriculture. Markus Goldstein of the World Bank noted problems on the programming side, comparing projects targeting hard business training skills versus projects offering training based in psychology, such as on the “entrepreneurial mindset.” Goldstein raised the question of whether programming to date has been targeting the wrong skills altogether. He also noted the impact of other, more gender-specific constraints, such as young women having children early.
Isaac Mbiti of the University of Virginia noted that, in the end, risk may rule the day. Mbiti pointed to trends suggesting that people do not always invest in the areas in which they were trained, pursuing instead low-risk or more accessible opportunities available. Programming can respond to this evidence, Mbiti suggested, by being more labor-market sensitive and incorporating stronger accountability to match skills with available opportunities.
Overall, Louise Fox stressed that youth labor markets and adult labor markets are linked, as are farm and non-farm jobs. Employment transformation takes time, and opportunities for youth will only improve with overall economic development, including rural economic transformation. This means that donors need to analyze overall employment, productivity, and incomes.
Some open questions remained, such as how youth gain knowledge and develop foundational skills given the difficulties facing rural education systems; whether programming should be youth-employment focused or merely youth-sensitive and when; how to gauge the interest within governments to integrate soft skills into basic education; and to what degree other sectors — such as education and health — should be engaged. Experimental approaches are needed to better understand not only what works, but what contextual factors play an important role. Gains for youth should not be at the expense of gains for other groups; this issue needs to be monitored.
As Senior Food Security Advisor for USAID Jim Oehmke noted, positive developments are underway in addressing youth entry into work. With new research shifting its focus from urban to rural poverty, formerly “invisible lives” are emerging, offering new statistical insights with big implications for shaping youth employment programming. However, employment and earnings outcome measurement is still a work in progress, given the fluidity of livelihoods in rural areas.
Though many open questions remain, new information and attention to the topic are allowing government and donor agencies to better understand what opportunities are available to youth, what role agriculture can play, and how those opportunities play into the larger goal of supporting improved livelihoods.