The Youth Puzzle

Mindset Change, Skills Matching, and Systems Change

Opportunities Puzzle: Piecing it Together for All Youth to Learn, Earn, and Thrive—
this was the theme framing this year’s Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit, presented by Making Cents International. The event drew more than 500 participants from over 60 countries and covered topics around skills development, work readiness, and self-employment and entrepreneurship as they relate to young people, as well as cross-cutting issues like gender, conflict, and measuring and scaling impact. Although no summary will do justice to all the ideas, innovations, and inspiration that surfaced, most discussions sought to reconcile three pieces of the youth puzzle.


MINDSET CHANGE: Capitalizing on new and dynamic economic opportunities

Keynote speaker and social entrepreneur Juan David Aristizabal, whose organization Los Zúper works with thousands of young people, pointed to the need for youth to shift from asking ‘can we?’ to ‘how can we?’ The transformation was evident in the inspiring story of Mkami Tetere, a young Tanzanian entrepreneur who established a successful agribusiness company, Mkami Ltd, supported by USAID’s Feed the Future program. “I discovered myself, my responsibilities, and what I needed to do to help my family,” said Mkami through a translator. As she proudly passed around her company’s bottled ginger paste, she announced her ambition, “I want to open a big agri-processing factory that creates jobs for young mothers and youths and links farmers to markets. There are no women with big factories!”

Building self-confidence is equally critical for young women with disabilities. Rhoda Ayieko, Founding Director of Kibera Community Empowerment Organization (KCEO) in Kenya, awed the audience with success stories of youth with disabilities who transformed their circumstances through enterprises, tapping locally available resources, such as trash to make shoes. “It is important to mentor such youth to maintain a focus on goals, because they begin with a low self-esteem and are often in a destructive mode,” she explained. Despite the continuing debate on whether we can create entrepreneurs or not, there was a general agreement that we must do more to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets. A culture that cultivates and nurtures innovation does not simply materialize without a mindset for discovering oneself, building self-esteem, taking risks, and growing an appetite for failing forward in pursuit of one’s goals.

Despite the continuing debate on whether we can create entrepreneurs or not, there was a general agreement that we must do more to cultivate entrepreneurial mindsets.

SKILLS MATCHING: Creating new enterprises and meeting evolving labor demands

George Ingram, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, highlighted the paradox in the formal labor market, in which youth are unemployed, yet firms are unable to fill vacancies. He elaborated the reasons for such disconnect, “Youth seek decent jobs, women face cultural gates to entry, and employers complain about not finding candidates with enough experience.” One particular trend is that today’s jobs require greater technological proficiency, drastically changing the nature of educational requirements for employability. Human Resources departments, therefore, have a larger role to play not only in recruiting, but also in retaining and retraining.

To encourage the development of more young entrepreneurs, participants acknowledged  the importance of both core technical skills, such as business management, and vocational aptitude, and soft skills, such as socio-emotional and leadership capabilities. The Summit created space to learn and share tools, frameworks, and evidence on the design and delivery of both hard and soft skills training while embedding cross-cutting issues like gender, conflict, measuring impact, and scaling solutions.

SYSTEMS CHANGE: Combining new perspectives and capabilities to drive solutions

The 2019 Summit focused on a notion of systems change that transcends the ecosystem of people, services, institutions, and policies. For many young people, particularly girls, the struggle to pursue ideas or employment begins at home. Whether it pertains to parents requiring them to follow a traditional livelihood path, such as tending to cattle, or something more severe, such as an arranged marriage, cultural barriers are a significant hurdle. Even for those who successfully overcome such challenges, obstacles further down the road, often in the form of gender-based violence, can interrupt pathways to empowerment. “When a girl is empowered, others feel threatened; it is therefore critical to involve husbands and boyfriends,” shared Rhoda, highlighting the need to engage more than just the immediate beneficiaries of a project.

Likewise, the emphasis on building partnerships with the private sector reverberated widely in the sessions, starting from the keynote speech. Juan David presented a successful model of how his organization collaborated with a food delivery company to collect donated books for libraries from customers receiving food deliveries. With this example, Juan defined system change as “learning to see and use the system that is already there to lead change,” while emphasizing the importance of creating trust, having a viable idea, and aligning complementary goals for such partnerships to flourish.

A breakout session at the Summit explored a systems change framework—using the example of skills development—and was enriched by the lessons drawn from scaling-up experiences of organizations such as BRAC, Generation Unlimited, and UNICEF. Carrying out a systems change in the labor market requires an understanding of how the system functions, starting with mapping actors, capturing the private sector’s role, training institutions, among other steps. This exercise enables the development of a holistic theory of change to identify opportunities and constraints in the labor market. Perhaps the hardest step is to orchestrate a common implementation platform to work towards a shared goal. Enduring solutions and behavior change is only possible through effective collaboration.

Enduring solutions and behavior change is only possible through effective collaboration.

The Summit created the kind of space that enabled connections in mutually reinforcing and inclusive ways for all young people. Confident in their potential and abilities, today’s youth can not only meet the demands of the future workforce but also transform the course of our dynamic global economy.

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