Building a Successful Youth Employment Program

Special Focus : Impact-Driven Innovation in Education
Life Skills January 06, 2019

Yvonne is a young Kenyan woman. As an orphan, she moved in with her sister after completing high school and spent three years searching for a job. “I was feeling like an outcast in the society,” she says. Unfortunately, she’s not alone. There are 75 million unemployed young people globally, and three times as many are underemployed. Youth unemployment leads to economic underperformance, social unrest, and individual despair as in Yvonne’s case. Yet at the same time, 40% of employers say they cannot find the skills they need for entry-level jobs. This skills gap represents a massive pool of untapped talent.

Thousands of public and private youth employment programs seek to change this narrative. However, the majority of youth employment programs that train and place youth in jobs serve less than 1,000 people annually, with even leading programs serving less than 5,000 annually. Compared to the size and scale of the global problem this is barely a drop in the bucket. Further, few youth employment programs gather robust evidence on results, not just during the program but through job placement, on-the-job performance, and ongoing retention and employment. Young people want to know the pay off in terms of personal and financial well-being. Additionally, employers cite a lack of evidence on such measures as productivity, quality, and retention, as a major reason for why they do not invest more in training.
I lead a youth employment nonprofit called Generation that aims to address these two significant barriers: program scale and return on investment. We launched our first classes approximately four years ago, and since then more than 25,000 young adults have gone through the program, which prepares young adults for careers in 24 professions in 100 cities and 250 locations across nine countries. Eighty-two percent of graduates have been employed within 3 months of program completion and 65% remain employed a full year later.
We’ve learned a lot in our work with Generation about how an innovative approach to training and employment can move the needle for unemployed youth. There are a number of components that help make training effective at scale:
1. Employer engagement – Working directly with employers from the beginning means that curricula can be developed based on observed workplace activities, job vacancies can be confirmed before the program starts so that graduates can begin work immediately, and employers can understand fully the training process and the new hire pipeline.
2. Short, practice-focused bootcamps with integrated skills – Intensive training over a period of only weeks, not months, allow young people to master the skills they need in a compressed period of time so they can get on the job sooner. Rooting the program in the practice of the most important on-the-job activities—and fully integrating lessons of the required technical skills, behavioral skills, and mindsets—means graduates will be ready to perform well from day one in their new jobs.
3. Mentorship and support during and after the program – Unemployed and underemployed young people often face multiple challenges that have disconnected them from the workforce. Support services like transportation stipends can give them the boost they need to focus on learning and work, and mentorship to help solve new challenges that arise both during the program and during the critical first months of work can make the difference in their success.
4. Data, data, and more data – Tracking learner and graduate data ongoing not only allows you to refine and improve programs over time but also to prove to both young people and employers that they can see a positive return from investing time and money into this sort of training.
These program components are discrete items, but they don’t represent a menu to choose from. To be effective, these need to be applied holistically. Collectively, they can serve as the foundation of a program that can achieve scale and prove return—and can place young people into stable, fulfilling employment.
We can see the success of this approach if we return to Yvonne’s story. Yvonne graduated from Generation’s sewing machine operator program in late 2017 and was immediately hired at Africa Apparel, Nairobi. Just two weeks in, she was promoted to more advanced machine operation. She says, “I am now earning KES 30,000 (US$300) a month. I have moved to my own house and can support my sister who unfortunately is currently unemployed.” Yvonne aspires to start her own sewing business and provide employment opportunities for other youth. With the right program and support, millions of young people like Yvonne can gain skills, launch careers, and change their life trajectories.