Harnessing the Power of Youth

Insights from the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit

Teenagers everywhere have attitude.

This was the initial thought that crossed my mind as I approached this year’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, the tenth annual conference presented by Making Cents International. However, these thoughts were quickly replaced by the acknowledgement that youth are more than the promise of the future. They are powerful individuals. Indeed, they are a force, and it is our collective challenge to ensure that they are a force for good.

I walked away with the insight that four things are required to guide that youthful energy and vigor towards concrete opportunities: hard skills, soft skills, a vision for the future, and leaders prepared to guide and coach.

We have a tendency to start with ‘hard-skills,’ those related to science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called STEM skills—to equip today’s youth with the technical capabilities for today’s opportunities, as well as for those to come in the future. This is a universal need, as evidenced by the demands on the public, private, and social sectors to invest in these important areas. ‘The Workforce of the Future’ is practically synonymous with Fortune 500 companies’ sustainability goals and reports. Everywhere you look, there are significant resources being channeled toward increasing the capabilities of youth in these fields, yet these are often piecemeal efforts and not particularly well integrated into the systems that would actually employ them.

In the opening panel discussion, Sarka Sengezener, Senior Director of Youth and Economic Empowerment at Plan International USA, offered an interesting and quite logical approach for getting young people to help solve these problems, “not to them, with them,” she emphasized. This idea is consistent with what we know works well with adults.

Without the ‘soft skills,’ namely collaboration, team-work, respect, interpersonal communication, personal responsibility, and an attitude for service, the hard skills are insufficient to increase the employability of youth. “Communication, collaboration, and abstract thinking are the fundamentals,” said Anthony Salcito, vice president of Worldwide Education at Microsoft.

ys2016_d1-0187More interestingly, there is a compelling case to be made for the need to help youth create a vision of their future, in order to make both hard and soft skills relevant to them. As young adults, they have moved beyond the willingness to learn or adapt behaviors simply because they are told. They need a vision of their future, of their potential, of the opportunities that exist and that they can co-create, in order to motivate them to learn and adapt. Moreover, it is in this area that without a positive vision for possibility, a more negative vision for disruption and destruction can take root, with the accompanying behaviors.

“The biggest challenge is empowering youth—not only through education, but the way that youth feel about their future,” pointed out Salcito. “We have a lot of students who don’t know what their future holds.  They don’t believe they can be anything. If we can solve that one problem, we empower students in a new way.”

Finally, for the younger generation to thrive, they need leadership that mentors and coaches, with a management style that adapts over time as individuals gain more skills, more knowledge, more experience, and finally, more independence. Since economic opportunities are both demand and supply driven, it is as necessary to prepare the managers in need of talent to receive youth as it is to prepare the youth to meet those needs.

We ignore youth at our peril. “It is a nexus to national security,” observed Dr. Soji Adelaja, John A. Hannah Distinguished Professor in Land Policy at Michigan State University and former chairman of the Presidential Initiative for the Northeast (PINE) of Nigeria (which has been ravaged by the Boko Haram insurgency). “Youth entrepreneurship and employment is critical to a counter-terrorism strategy.  Unemployed youth—what do they do?  Pickpocketing, armed robbery, crime—for them it becomes a matter of survival. Youth unemployment provides a steady source for terrorism.”

The world is depending on their energy, their creativity, and their intelligence.  As the population grows along with a corresponding rise in global challenges to confront, there is no lack of work to be done. How, then, can we lack jobs? “Can we produce graduates to create jobs—not look for them?” asked Dr. Anna Andrew Temu of Sokoine University in Tanzania. That was her vision upon founding the Graduate Enterprises Cooperative Society (SUGECO), which starts with mindset transformation, followed by training, internships, and ultimately business incubation.

“You have to reach young people and their parents—consider a whole community approach—in order to be more supportive of entrepreneurship,” noted Adelaja.

ys2016_d2-0068 Clear leadership is needed to channel youthful energy into productive employment, with ready access to training that considers technical and interpersonal skills to be of equal importance. Mentoring is needed to help youth paint their own picture of a positive future that is as accessible as it is achievable. Finally, coaching is needed to provide clear directions, appropriate feedback, and encouragement over the inevitable bumps on the way to meaningful careers.

Salcito summarized by saying “We are hungry for the talent to fuel the future—especially girls.  We have to shift the expectations of students.  We have to shift the learning canvas beyond the classroom.  We have to inspire students with what they can make and do with STEM, and we have to empower students to innovate.”


Now in its 10th year, the Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit is designed to increase the impact, scale, and sustainability of youth economic opportunity programming. Making Cents International’s conference featured 60 technical workshops and plenary-level discussions with 175 presenters, engaging more than 450 leading stakeholders from 50 countries in Arlington, Virginia, September 28-30, 2016.

Solvable problems, like closing the youth skills and employability gap, is the focus of the next PYXERA Global Engagement Forum Live, April 4-5, 2017 in Washington, D.C., a convening of leaders from business, government, education, and non-profits to address the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. To learn more, or request an invitation, please click here.

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