A few decades ago, the average young person in Asia could expect a bright future ahead with the advent of universal education and economic growth. Today, however, this is no longer the case. An average young person in Asia today aged 15-24 is more than twice as likely to be unemployed than an average working-age person. Underemployment is also more likely to affect young people, landing them in the informal economy or vulnerable jobs without decent working conditions. What’s more, COVID-19 is set to create a perfect storm, with the ILO warning that youth in less protected and low-paid jobs are likely to be disproportionately affected by the economic upheaval.
What lies behind this? In many Asian countries, the education-to-employment system that channels young people from formal schooling to the workplace is underperforming. Problems of quantity (too few students complete secondary school), quality (education systems remain underdeveloped), and skills mismatch (between what students acquire and what employers actually want) are endemic.
Governments in Asia are taking action by launching on-the-job training programmes, raising education spending, and promoting vocational education. International development agencies are also rising to the occasion, with the likes of GIZ, ADB, and USAID operating or funding programmes to address youth employability in partner countries.
Despite signs of progress, there remain pockets of marginalised youth within each country that confront much greater adversity than the norm and against whom the odds are even more stacked in education and employment. National systems and interventions often fail to reach these vulnerable youth, who can end up falling through the cracks.
Who are these vulnerable groups? Though social inequalities differ from country to country, there are broad themes. In developing countries, rural youths and youths in poverty are at a significant disadvantage. Developed countries grapple with ‘invisible youth’ - unemployed youth who withdraw from society but receive support from their families, rendering them ‘hidden’ from public outreach efforts. Other disadvantaged groups such as the disabled, refugees or undocumented migrants, ethnic minorities, and women cut across most countries.
The barriers these youths face are formidable. Firstly, they are disproportionately affected by the problems that plague national education-to-employment systems. For example, vocational institutes and certified trainers are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. In Indonesia, rural youth are 3x more likely to be out-of-school than urban youth, and poor children 5x more likely to be so than well-off children. Secondly, certain groups, such as refugees or migrants, are deliberately excluded from national systems. In Hong Kong and Malaysia, asylum seekers are barred from working and only have very restricted access to education. Lastly, discrimination from employers or society compounds these problems. In a Hong Kong survey, only 17% of employers indicated interest in hiring people with disabilities.
In the absence of targeted systemic support, social purpose organisations (SPOs) and private funders have stepped in to fill this gap, playing crucial roles in supporting vulnerable youth to get the skills they need to get a job or start their own business.
SPOs and funders stepping up
Deeply rooted in local contexts and needs, SPOs are leading civil society efforts to develop solutions that directly impact the lives of youth, such as by:
Engaging the private sector. SPOs have traditionally focused on the ‘supply side’ to train youths themselves, but it is equally important to work with the ‘demand side’ of employers to ensure they are aligned. CSR CCR, an Asia-based social enterprise, works with employers to identify meaningful employment opportunities for youth and help workplaces revamp their systems and processes so as to effectively hire, develop, and retain youth as valuable employees.
Catalysing bottom-up collaboration. Competition can be rife amongst SPOs for funding, yet more are eschewing territorialism for genuine collaboration in order to scale their impact. Friends International, for example, is kickstarting a bottom-up network of regional partners to replicate and scale vocational training businesses that provide access to employment for marginalised youth across Southeast Asia.
Experimenting and innovating. While much SPO work involves delivering large-scale government-initiated programmes, some are breaking new ground to develop new ideas and models for social impact. Fantastic Dream is a Hong Kong-based social enterprise pioneering the use of online influencers and social media to engage invisible youth, particularly those from low-income families who are addicted to gaming and the Internet.
At the same time, funders play a critical role in mobilising and directing resources to help SPOs maximise their impact, such as by:
Investing in research. Although donor interest in youth employability has increased, some areas remain notably underfunded, particularly long-term investment in knowledge and research. Yet it is essential, both as a public good with significant potential to multiply impact, and as a key input into strategic priority-setting and impact evaluation. Credit Suisse’s focus on Future Skills has supported such research, for example, with the landscape mapping report on which this article is based.
Facilitating upfront planning. Many donors prioritise funding “shovel ready” proposals at the expense of investing in long-term programme development and planning. Macquarie Group Foundation, whose grantmaking in Asia targets young migrant workers, ensures that such capacity building is embedded into partnerships with grantees by funding initiatives to develop an evidence base and theory of change upfront.
Empowering grantees to focus on long-term impact. Whilst it is simple to track short-term programme metrics (“number of lives touched”), these do not adequately capture how successful a programme has truly been at enabling vulnerable youth to secure and sustain employment in the long-run. EMpower, a global philanthropy focusing on youth-at-risk, supports in-country SPOs in this by convening peer learning and expert sharing sessions on topics such as “how to keep in touch and work with alumni”.
As youth unemployment is likely to be compounded by COVID-19, SPOs and funders will be more important than ever in reaching marginalised youth overlooked by official systems. To do this effectively, we believe that SPOs need to maintain an unrelenting focus on impact, and funders a strategic approach to grantmaking - stay tuned for our next posts detailing some real life examples.
This article was made possible by a grant from Credit Suisse which funded the report upon which the article was based.