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Making Cents opening plenary: Youth employment is more important than ever

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The message from the opening plenary at the Making Cents International Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference was clear: youth employment is more important than ever. To start off the plenary, moderator Peter Coy, Economics Editor and Senior Writer at Bloomberg Businessweek, touched upon two indicators of the youth crisis: the recent youth-led uprisings in the Middle East (and elsewhere), and the fact that youth unemployment isn’t static -- each year that a young person remains unemployed, the further the damage and sense of alienation.

In a stagnating economy where four out of every ten jobs did not exist four years ago, what are governments and other actors doing on the policy level to improve opportunities for youth? Setting the stage for the conference on a high-level, the plenary, “Global employment trends and policy levers: how can we take a system-wide approach to youth employment?” featured commentary from David Arkless, President of Corporate and Government Affairs at Manpower Group; Barbara Chilangwa, Executive Director of Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) and Former Permanent Secretary of Education (Zambia); and Ambassador Aziz Mekouar, Ambassador of Morocco to the United States.

As Coy engaged the panel with assistance from audience questions, several key themes emerged. Perhaps to no one’s surprise, all of the speakers agreed that education is paramount. But a key point the panel emphasized is that it’s not just about standard education; it’s about matching skills to industry demands. In one example, Ambassador Mekouar explained that call centers have emerged as a center of job creation in Morocco. However, West Africans are filling these positions because Moroccans lack the French language skills needed to compete for these jobs. Governments can play a bigger role in working with the private sector to identify future skills needs to fill critical gaps in the workforce. There is no point in training, Arkless noted, if you don’t know what skills are needed.

The emphasis on building skills to meet demand led to a discussion on the importance of vocational training. As Arkless explained, the current mentality is that “if you don’t get a university degree you are a failure.” Many, myself  (and my Bachelor’s Degree) included, were surprised by Arkless’ next statistic. Last year in the United States, the average salary of graduates with a Bachelor’s Degree was just over $40,000. For those with a vocational degree, the number jumped to $59,000. 

On average, Arkless continued, youth employment is double that of “normal” unemployment. By looking at two examples where the unemployment levels balance out, in the Netherlands and Germany, perhaps we can identify a solution. Both of these countries accentuate technical and engineering skills and training, and these professions are given the same regard as doctors and lawyers. Vocational education is essential to increasing youth employment, and the Ambassador and Chilangwa both substantiated this point. Critical issues like illiteracy also need to be tackled and are disastrous for economic growth.

Another topic discussed was youth employment in rural versus urban communities. A big problem in Zambia, Chilangwa noted, is the number of youth who leave their rural communities for cities, only to find a nonexistent urban job market. Instead of a booming agricultural sector, Zambia lacks rural infrastructure and many of these areas do not have proper facilities, electricity, telephone communication, or even roads. This is an issue many other developing countries also face.

The discussion during the opening plenary created a sense of urgency for conference participants and underscored the importance of creating viable pathways for youth to succeed in today’s economy.