Learning from youth to solve youth unemployment

Ruth Nyambe. Illustration by April Y. Kasulis.

By RTI staff

Reflecting on why she wants to become a journalist, Ruth Nyambe, an 18-year-old from Lusaka, Zambia, sounds more like a seasoned professional than an aspiring one.

“I know that an accurate story leads to a well-informed nation and world at large,” she says. “Through my career, I want to reveal hidden truths of national interest, and be the voice for members of the public, regardless of their status in society.”

Ruth dreams of pursuing a career in journalism by studying mass communication at the University of Zambia. On the advice of her mother, she instead applied to study water resources at a different institution. But neither path seems likely. Ruth lives in a single-parent household along with older and younger siblings. Her mother does not work, and despite strong academic qualifications, her chances of receiving a scholarship are low.

“I am in a challenging situation,” Ruth said. “The chance to study at a higher learning institution would be a life-changing opportunity. I want to be a living testimony that dreams can come true.”

Youth unemployment: a global challenge

Ruth’s passion and optimism are hallmarks of talented youth around the world from all walks of life. Her own story — complete with sizable obstacles — is also familiar. She is one of the estimated 350 million young people aged 15–24 who are not employed or in school.

“Talented youth who, because of hardship or lack of opportunity, have been unable to meet their potential are maybe the greatest unrealized resource on the planet,” said Peter Joyce, an expert on youth employment at RTI International.

Joyce heads the Global Center for Youth Employment (GCYE), a virtual consortium of universities, NGOs, foundations and private sector institutions focused on better understanding global youth unemployment and developing solutions. Currently, according to the World Bank, more than two billion people around the world of working age are not in the global workforce. The Bank estimates that 600 million new jobs are needed over the next decades to keep employment rates stable.

The GCYE is one of the partners behind YouthVoices, a digital storytelling platform allowing young people to tell their own stories to a global audience. YouthVoices invites youth to share their struggles, successes and dreams as they transition from education to the workforce. Almost 500 young people from around the world — including Ruth — have shared their stories.

YouthVoices is a pioneering digital storytelling platform created by The GroundTruth Project and the Global Center for Youth Employment, with support from RTI International, the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

“We continue to be inspired by the passion, ambition and commitment of youth around the world to build a brighter future for themselves, their families, their communities and beyond,” Joyce said.

By building a greater understanding of the factors driving youth economic challenges and success, YouthVoices — led by GCYE member and journalism innovator, The GroundTruth Project­­ — hopes to reshape the international community’s response to the jobs crisis. And by placing youth at the center of the conversation and helping them share their stories with the world, the campaign seeks to change the perspectives of policymakers, compel public action and ultimately connect more young people to jobs. The first submissions from youth sharing their dreams of becoming doctors, farmers, entrepreneurs and more were compiled by GroundTruth in “Ambitions Interrupted: 35 Dream Jobs,” as covered by the Huffington Post, NPR, PRI, and others.

As more submissions continue to come in, researchers at RTI and the GCYE analyze them to better understand the underlying factors driving the youth employment crisis. Trends appearing across the YouthVoices platform that offer actionable insights to experts who design and implement youth programs include:

· The importance of family considerations (such as parental preferences, family income, and siblings) in providing financial support and motivation;

· The importance of money to pay modest school fees and capital to start a small, local business. Youth rarely mention dream jobs that “make lots of money;”

· Planning. Many youth are pursuing a more easily attainable livelihood for now, with dreams of something bigger. Many mention that they are already saving for future education and training;

· Hope and optimism, against tough odds.

Submissions have been received from youth around the world, including many from El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, India, Guinea, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.

Working toward solutions

Members of the GCYE include representatives from universities, NGOs, foundations and the private sector. Together they span 100 countries and reach more than 3 million youth per year through on-the-ground programming that focuses on workforce development and youth empowerment.

The Global Center for Youth Employment is a virtual learning and action center that brings together a broad, diverse coalition of allies to identify and nurture innovative youth employment solutions

The GCYE focuses on three types of initiatives that its members view as central to solving the youth employment crisis: providing educational and training opportunities that are aligned with the needs of local employers; improving information sharing to connect young people to existing jobs; and helping entrepreneurs and small- and medium-enterprises create more jobs. The Center’s members are piloting interventions in each of these areas, with the goal of finding what works and taking it to scale.

For instance, the Center partnered with RTI International, Duke University, LinkedIn, and Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator in South Africa to evaluate the impact of providing marginalized youth access to better professional networks and labor market information. As part of this two-year study, RTI and Harambe developed a curriculum for introducing youth to LinkedIn and other digital professional networks to help them understand the networks’ functionality and develop a habit of using such tools throughout their careers. The curriculum is an open source resource that can be adjusted to meet specific training needs. Pending results, this approach may represent a low cost way for overcoming geographic and socio-economic barriers that marginalized youth face in attaining the professional networks known to be highly determinate of education and career success. If so, Center members will roll out the curriculum globally.

Center members also host Ideathons to foster collaboration and identify new programs for development and investment. The LinkedIn evaluation was selected as one of four initial projects that received funding and support during the group’s first Ideathon event in 2015. A second Ideathon was held in Bangkok in 2016 and yielded several new projects, including one on providing actionable labor market information to parents to help them provide career advice and guidance to their children. Encouraged by the potential impact of the GCYE and its work, the Ford Foundation has provided support to hold a third Ideathon later this year in New York City.

Brainstorming during an Ideathon hosted by the Global Center for Youth Employment

Ultimately, the Center is determined to discover and carry out the actions needed to empower youth to improve their futures — and the futures of those around them. After all, Ruth’s dream is not just for herself. “I want to be the change I wish to see in my community, country and world,” she said.

For more information about the Global Center for Youth Employment or to get involved, please visit their website or email Peter Joyce.

RTI's #globaldev team applies science and knowledge to improve lives in developing countries around the world. An official RTI International feed.