HAVANA TIMES, Dec 17 (IPS) — Programs to reduce the unemployment rate among young people in Latin America and the Caribbean should be a priority for countries in the region, said experts, trade unionists and government representatives meeting in the Chilean capital.
“This is a crucial moment for Latin America and the Caribbean. The region must act quickly” to integrate policies favoring young people’s development, Guillermo Dema, regional specialist on child labor and youth employment at the International Labor Organization (ILO), told IPS.
In Latin America, young people between the ages of 15 and 24 will number 104.2 million this year. “There have never been so many young people in the region, and never again will they make up such a large proportion of the population. The demographic bonus is coming to an end,” said the Spanish expert, at the 17th American Regional Meeting of the ILO, concluding this Friday in Santiago.
Unemployment among young men and women is 2.5 times that of adults in the region. Some 6.7 million young people are looking fruitlessly for jobs.
Most of those who do find work have low-paying precarious jobs in the informal sector or on temporary contracts, without social security coverage.
Monthly incomes for the young average 424 dollars, compared to 788 for adults, according to the report Decent Work and Youth in Latin America 2010, published in October by the ILO, a tripartite agency made up of governments, employers and workers.
Another cause for concern is that 18 million young people, nearly 20 percent of the total, are neither studying nor working, the report says. Most of them are women who do domestic chores at home, reflecting the region’s high rate of teenage pregnancy, most commonly among poor families.
But at the same time, young people in the region have achieved a record number of years of schooling and their professional qualifications are better than ever.
“Before the global economic crisis broke out in 2008, young people already had a hard time finding decent work, and with the crisis the situation is shocking,” Amanda Villatoro of El Salvador, who is in charge of gender and youth issues for the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA-CSA), told IPS at the meeting.
“No country in the region lacks a program for youth ’employability’. But experience shows that a single program is not enough,” Dema said.
“We need to move from youth programs with limited coverage to national policies,” he said. These should combine, for instance, policies for training, job creation and social protection for the most vulnerable, he added.
The ILO’s Agenda for the Hemisphere 2006-2015 proposes within this period to halve the proportion of 15- to 24-year-olds that are neither studying nor gainfully employed. But the prospects so far are discouraging, as between 2005 and 2008 the proportion fell by only 1.1 percent.
Stakeholders agree that the main challenge is to improve the quality and relevance of education, with reference to labor market needs. Keeping young people in classrooms longer is another important need.
“If the market for lawyers is saturated, why carry on training lawyers? It only frustrates the young, and gives the generation that will manage the region in coming decades the message that education is not an instrument for social mobility and the key to a decent life, when in fact the reverse is true,” said Villatoro, calling for public policies to take action on education.
Incentives to hire young people include laws encouraging companies to hire youngsters without experience, although these have stirred up controversy because of their possible effect on adult employment. In this area, “balance and social dialogue are needed,” Dema remarked.
The Colombian legislature passed a “first job” law Wednesday designed to stimulate hiring of young people.
Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzón told IPS that the new law represents “a step forward for decent work.”
Youth unemployment in Colombia stands at 22.3 percent, compared to an overall unemployment rate of 10.5 percent, he said.
The ILO also recommends supporting youth enterprise: Latin America has at least 5.1 million young entrepreneurs. But this is not the only way to go, Dema said.
Villatoro said, “We are very concerned about ‘first job’ program in several Latin American countries that are basically focused on enterprise.”
Dema praised Chile’s subsidies for hiring vulnerable 18- to 25-year-olds, implemented in 2009, and the “ProJoven” job-training program in Peru. Brazil has a similar national policy.
“Companies vary, and so do their situations,” Dagoberto Lima Godoy, who represents the Brazilian business community on the ILO governing body, told IPS, referring to criticism of unfair or harmful labor practices that are especially aimed at small and medium enterprises.
In Lima’s view, the temporary contracts that affect mainly young workers are only justified when economic conditions are unstable.
“Companies that make a habit of employing temporary workers will never have really well-trained, capable staff, and they will never be competitive,” he said.
“Just as the quality of employment defines the quality of a society, the future of a society is determined by the employment of its young workers,” the ILO General Director, Juan Somavía, said this week.