Investment in youth seen as 'urgent' as unemployment soars due to Covid

Young graphic designer teleworking in UAE. (Keystone / Mahmoud Khaled)

The Covid-19 economic shocks seen worldwide have reduced demand or entirely sidelined important sectors of the global workforce. Some of the most far-reaching impacts, however, have been felt by youth. In an online dialogue organized by the Global Apprenticeship Network (GAN) last week, thought leaders came together to address the increasing uncertainty that young workers face.

What are the numbers (so far)? According to Luther Schuknecht, Deputy Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), the pandemic’s economic effect has been 10 times larger than the 2008 financial crisis, as unemployment has surged to 8.4 percent in April from 5.2 percent in February — trends that rippled everywhere. And unemployment is forecast to continue rising this year to 10-12 percent and beyond, OECD’s latest 2020 data projects.

Projections for 2020. Source: OECD

Among young workers, age 15 to 24 years old, at least one in six have lost their jobs since the onset of the crisis, based on a recent survey by the ILO. Alette van Leur, Sectoral Policies Director of the International Labour Organization (ILO), says that 73% of young people were affected by school closures, and around 84% have experienced interruptions in internships and apprenticeships.

“The crisis is hitting young people faster and harder. They’re already facing a job crisis even before the pandemic,” van Leur says. “Now they’re experiencing more shocks and greater difficulties.”

The problems are compounded by the fact that youth (as well as women) are heavily employed in vulnerable sectors such as tourism, culture, and manufacturing. Laurent Freixe, Chair of Global Apprenticeship Network and CEO of Nestlé Zone Americas, says,

“Many will not be able to finish their studies. For most, it will be hard to enter or re-enter the market… It is a major employment, education, and training crisis.”

Work-based learning solutions. All speakers agreed that immediate changes are needed to quickly create links between the labor market and educational system through expanded public and private investments in apprenticeship and internship programs. As Bettina Schaller of The Adecco Group has pointed out, the skills acquired also will help young workers adapt to changing working conditions, including more teleworking, fewer work hours, and the digital upscaling of the workspace. van Leur emphasizes:

“Developing people’s capabilities through different transitions that will make people adapt to the changes in the world of work.”

Urgent calls from the youth. Specifically, as around 600 million jobs are needed for the next 15 years in order to recover, Sidra Khan,  a youth representative from the Punjab Board of Investment & Trade, called on the key players — from multinational corporations, international organizations, and governments — to act as quickly as possible to avoid the creation of a 'lockdown generation’. As Natalie Mukundane, Executive Chairperson of the African Youth Commission, says,

“Big multinationals hold the capacity to employ young people... Stakeholders need to put pressure on governments for relevant skills acquisition policies such as soft skills [and increased digitalization].”

Context matters. The future of work in the post-pandemic world will largely be based on whether we’ll be able to manage the transition of the labor force to tasks that are adapted to the economic needs and realities of the Covid era. In dealing with youth, Mukundane reminds us “not to forget young people who are marginalized and vulnerable, those who have weak infrastructure.” Mthunzi Mdwaba, IOE Vice-President of the ILO, adds,

“We cannot work with theoretical conjecture. You cannot use models that work elsewhere…  The transition should be based on what the people need… No matter what happens, people will drive the future of work.”