For too many young people in Latin America and the Caribbean, the path to employment is fraught with challenges. For too many businesses in the region, finding qualified young people proves difficult. Innovations in Youth Employment: Insights from the NEO Initiative, held in Washington, DC, in late April, examined how to align youth, school, training, and employer needs to connect youth with opportunities and bridge the skills gap.

Organized by IYF and the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), co-creators of NEO, the day-long event engaged stakeholders and practitioners from across the region. Complementing panels about multi-stakeholder alliances and quality standards, Mary Snapp, Corporate Vice President of Microsoft Philanthropies, delivered the event's keynote address and joined an on-stage discussion on the future of work. Several themes emerged from the conversation:

  1. Don't be afraid of new technology. "The concern is that as technology goes forward at a faster and faster rate, unless we’re able to bring internet access to the 3.9 billion people in the world who don’t have it today, and unless we’re able to bring more digital skills and technical skills, inequality will be become wider and not narrower," said Snapp. "In a nutshell, it will be really important that we use technology to move us forward but not leave people—the most important part, people—behind," Snapp explained. "To be afraid of these changes is the worst thing we can do," added Oscar Contreras-Villarroel, YouthActionNet® Fellow and founder of Fundación Ciencia Joven (Youth Science Foundation) in Chile. "I was born in an era where I have digital access. I was presented new things. It’s people developing this technology. The educational system is moving slower than the people in it or technology."
  2. Align education with modern technology and opportunities. Referring to examples from the United States, Snapp explained, "We're now needing to move to different kinds of middle skills than what got us through the 60s and 70s." This changing designation of what constitutes relevant middle skills, which require less training than a four-year degree but more than a high school diploma, leads to opportunities in new fields like mechatronics, she said. Miguel Székely, Director, Centro de Estudios Educativos y Sociales (CEES) in Mexico agreed and noted that getting public schools in LAC to shift to develop middle skills is going to take time. As Mexico's former Sub-Secretary of Education, he spoke from first-hand experience when he said, "Such a high investment has already been made in the old model, that it’s very hard to shift that rapidly in a world changing so quickly."
  3. Make the business case for private sector involvement, and provide incentives. "We should make the private sector more accountable to get engaged in the educational system," said Snapp. Székely said incentives are at the core of the problem: the private sector in Latin America doesn’t have that push to invest, and schools don’t have that reason to change. The NEO model makes clear the necessity and benefits of bringing together all relevant stakeholders; for example, a panel earlier that day shared results from collaboration by government ministries, a company foundation, and a national NGO in the Dominican Republic.
  4. Remove stigma around vocational-technical education, and make STEM learning and jobs attractive to youth. To add prestige and make a clearer case for engagement from the private sector, Snapp suggested rebranding this training as "career-connected learning." In addition to discussing ways to remove stigma and increase understanding of opportunities and the need for specialized skills, the panel explored how to make the related jobs more appealing. Székely argued that demonstrating the incoming-earning potential would draw youth to these areas. Contreras-Villarroel, the young social entrepreneur who works to make STEM education fun and engaging for youth, argued that money isn't enough. Other factors, including working toward a purpose, motivate young people to pursue a particular field, he said.
  5. Invest in skills that endure. As education and training systems work to catch up or keep pace with technology and changes in the job market, there's a set of competencies that every person will always need: life skills. “Technical skills might change every seven or eight years, so it's absolutely important that adaptive thinking, communication, trying different things—that growth mindset—has to be a part of this if people are going to make this transition," said Snapp. "Those life skills are so important.”

"No one company, no one industry, no one government, no one foundation, no one school district can do it on their own," said Snapp. "It's all about leveraging partnerships so that we can ensure young people will have digital skills, technical or middle skills, and some even computer science coding skills—so we can ensure that, in the future of work and for the jobs of tomorrow, we work together to ensure no one is left behind."

To learn more about the NEO initiative and the partnerships that drive it, visit youthneo.org.