280 million+ youth are not employed, in training or in education: Interview with ILO Expert

Susana Puerto-Gonzalez, ILO Youth Employment Expert

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic hit in February 2020, SOS Children’s Villages spoke with Susana Puerto-Gonzalez, Senior Youth Employment Specialist at the International Labour Organization (ILO).  In this interview, which took place in June 2022, we spoke with Susana again to learn how the crisis has affected young people in the world of work.

What has changed in youth employment since 2020?

The last time we spoke was right before the COVID-19 pandemic and, as you can imagine, the situation and the prospects of young people in the labour market has deteriorated.

COVID-19 has stalled any progress over the past years, especially among young people. And while young people are always heavily impacted by economic recessions, this time with COVID it was worse, in terms of the size and the speed of the economic impact but also in terms of the extent to which young people were disproportionately affected by the crisis.

To understand the job crisis induced by COVID-19, we have to remember those vulnerabilities that we discussed two years ago before the pandemic. Even before COVID, young people were already facing vast vulnerabilities in the labour market.

One of those characteristics that preceded COVID is the number of young people that work in the informal economy. Our figures before COVID showed that three out of four young workers were engaged in informal employment, which reflects a high degree of work insecurity and lack of access to social protection. Since informality and poverty often go hand in hand, we can therefore understand that there are millions of young people that were already living with their families in poverty. Even before the crisis, we counted 51 million young people in extreme working poverty.

We have seen, in terms of the impacts of the crisis on young people, that it affects various aspects and facets of their lives. We have obviously seen that there is a reduction in youth employment. This reduction in youth employment has been massive vis-à-vis the changes in employment and the unemployment rates that we see among adults. This shows how vulnerable young people are in the labour market vis-à-vis adults.

For example, between 2019 and 2020 when we felt the hardest hit, the youth employment rate fell by 8.2 percent whereas the adult employment rate was only hit by 3.6 percent. These kinds of figures that show how young people are always heavily impacted by crisis but much more than adults.

One of the other impacts that has been documented by the ILO and many other organizations is the significant disruptions to young people’s education and training.

Last but not least is the deterioration of their mental well-being. This combination of the mental well-being of youth and their education, their educational achievements, their educational attainment is very connected to the prospects of young people in the labour market.

To highlight one thing that is concerning about the impact of COVID-19: the increase in the number of young people that are not in employment, education or training. This is the so-called NEET. We see that with the crisis, the number of young people with the NEET status has passed 280 million.

This is a situation that affects mostly young women and it is a serious situation because being in NEET implies that a young person is missing a crucial early formation of his or her human capital and he or she is risking being less employable in the future. Being in NEET is also a sign of discouragement, loss of hope and detachment from the labour market. It’s obviously not a right start for a young person to work in life.

So, unemployment is part of the NEET indicator and what we have seen today is also that there has been a significant increase in the number of young people that are unemployed. Around 75 million youth were unemployed in 2021.

Now the second aspect of concern is the number of young people that are working but have experienced increased vulnerabilities. With the pandemic, young people have experienced widened inequalities that have pushed them to more insecure and informal gigs. These are jobs that offer subsistence but are far from offering meaningful work-based learning, career prospects and overall better employment outcomes both today and tomorrow. These are two of the most important elements and changes that we see in terms of the prospects of young people in the labour market.

What are the long-term impacts of the youth employment crisis?

Unemployment, inactivity and insecure work can have long-lasting scarring effects on career paths and future earnings. These negative impacts of COVID-19 are therefore not only felt by young people today but it is a situation that may continue to impact them in the years to come.

We ought to be aware of this situation that young people are facing because there are consequences in the longer term. For example, students that are graduating from university or generally those transitioning from school to work in the middle of a recession may be unemployed or underemployed and it may take them a while to get to their desired career path.

They may also be dissuaded from looking for jobs entirely. This is something we are increasingly seeing, which is another situation where we see a waste of their potential. All of this affects education and employment. As I said before, this is compounded by the severe hit on the mental well-being of young people. Unless these vulnerabilities are addressed and unless the mental well-being of young people is protected, the social risk of a “COVID-19 lockdown generation” as the ILO called it in 2020 may be felt in the longer run.

How can we get more young women into the labour market?

Women have pretty much felt the worst of the employment crisis. Roughly two times as many young women lost their jobs as did young men. Young women are much more vulnerable, and there are some factors that are associated with gender and these impact women of all ages. Then there are other factors that are very much age-specific.

Let me refer to some of those factors that have impacted women in general. The first one is an overt representation of women in sectors severely affected by the crisis, such as accommodation, domestic work or labour-intensive manufacturing like garment making, and the other aspect is again the overrepresentation of women in the informal economy, especially in developing countries.

This is important because...

Quote and pic of Susana Puerto-Gonzalez

In addition to the employment losses and the lack of access to emergency policies, the pandemic also pushed many young women into inactivity. Sometimes they needed to care for the family or, not seeing opportunities, they simply disengaged from the labour market.

This is a sign of discouragement. This is a sign of detachment from the labour market and it’s something that is not desirable because it tends to have long-term consequences. It is unfortunate that despite all the recovery efforts, policies and measures that we see across the globe, the recovery continues being slow among young women.

That’s why the ILO is advocating for extraordinary policy efforts to make sure that this trend is reversed. We can come out from this crisis having addressed some of these gender inequalities in terms of access to both quantity and quality of employment.

Some of the actions are specific to how to boost the participation of young women in the labour market. They may be very well related to sectors like the care economy as a high percentage of women are in the care labour force. The significant number of young people it employs around the world was around 12 percent before the pandemic, indicating that there is a great opportunity to boost the participation of young women in the care economy.

What we see is that there is a niche opportunity to engage young women in the care economy and that means also improving the working conditions in the care sector so that young women and women in general and young workers can benefit from better labour conditions, better opportunities and career prospects in the care economy.

There might be other measures to boost and stimulate the participation of young women in the labour market. These may be related to economic policies, to employment policies or simply to how effective public employment services are in assisting that particular group.

Do you think we are coming out of the pandemic now?

It’s hard for the ILO to say whether we’re coming out of the pandemic or not but what we have seen is that recovery is slow and we haven’t seen a reverse in the statistics we had wished for two years ago. We still see that hours of work have continued decreasing. So we see that the job crisis that is induced by the pandemic is something for the longer term.

Economic policies have been more effective in high-income countries than in developing countries. So we see a faster recovery in those economies than in the developing world or even in middle-income countries. It speaks a lot about equality in the recovery, equality in access to vaccination, equality in the capacity of institutions to address a crisis like this that was unprecedented and, simply, in many countries we just didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.

When it comes to labour markets, one of the things that we also faced was lack of data to understand what the situation of young people was in particular. Only countries with strong institutions were able to produce data rapidly about what were the vulnerable pockets or the vulnerable regions within their countries that needed to be served and where policies needed to be integrated.

As I said, we still see very strong effects from the pandemic on labour markets. So, while obviously SDG 8 and the promotion of decent jobs for youth and economic growth continues to be paramount, the prospects in terms of the trends we see are still a little bit concerning.

We have not passed the crisis and, as I said before, these effects and the impacts that we have seen young people experiencing are the kinds of things for the longer term.

Graduating during the recession means that it will take a while for a young person to get back on a positive path to advance their career or to succeed in self-employment, to get their dream job, etcetera.

What we see is a crisis that will stay with us for a little longer but, nevertheless, there is a great advocacy and trust in multilateralism and the commitments of member states and commitments of the entire international community towards the SDGs.

What policies would help alleviate this crisis?

What is important to highlight is we need to continue investing in youth employment. Evidence has shown that, prior to the crisis, interventions that help to integrate young people in the labour market have positive results. We’re building on evidence that shows how important it is to invest in young people, that there’s a business case for investing in young people because any penny that we invest in youth employment programs leads to positive labour market outcomes for youth.

When we think about policy responses, we often try to visualize a framework for action. It might be very useful for SOS Children’s Villages and it partners to think about the destination. Where do we want young people to go? We want a labour market with jobs that are decent, that fulfil their expectations and that help them grow. Our call is to assist young people’s transition to work.

If we want them in the labour market, we have to start by nurturing and pushing for certain economic policies that will be conducive to the creation of employment. We’re talking here about fiscal policies and monetary policies.

Even though many of us are not working in that sphere, we as a community, as grassroot organizations, as NGOs, as simply just development partners, we can also push for governments to open fiscal space, to invest in this kind of employment with pro-employment macroeconomic policies.

Then there can be more programs to support young people’s integration into the labour market. All are pushing for sectoral policies now. We talked already about the care economy but there are many opportunities for young people in the green economy, in the digital economy, and the orange or creative economy.

It is important to think about those macro policies that can help create that enabling environment for the creation of jobs. We hear a lot about how young people don’t have the skills. Many times, employers mention that young people do not have softer skills for work, mention their work ethic and collaboration skills, etcetera.

It is very important to continue investing in skilling, upskilling, reskilling. But at the same time, we have to create jobs and the private sector also has a responsibility towards creating jobs. Otherwise, we’re just training young people, turning them into serial trainees. They just go from one training to another training but they still do not transition to a decent job.

That’s why this sort of thinking about the destination and the policies is important because that creates an enabling environment for job creation.

Now the second aspect of our framework for action is the path. First think about the destination and second, we think about the path and how we’re going to get young people into employment. On this path, we speak about skills and how important it is to offer and equip young people with the skills that are demanded by employers, that are demanded by the market.

Different kinds of interventions such as employment guarantees that include apprenticeship systems or include different pathways for young people either because they’re going to apprenticeships or they go back to education or they enter into employment. These kinds of schemes have proven to be very effective.

Other measures may be supporting young entrepreneurs both through skills or by supporting SMEs with different elements. It could be helping young people to transform their businesses after the economic crisis, to improve their systems, to make them more market-oriented, more efficient, to create linkages with value chains, etcetera.

The last element in our framework is about inclusiveness. Speaking from the ILO perspective, it is very important for us to promote, protect the respect for human rights and, in this particular case, the respect of the rights of young people. It could be their rights at work but it could also be simply just awareness about the right to work that is also available to them.

When we speak about inclusiveness, we should recognize that we have a joint commitment to reduce the share of young people who are at risk of being permanently left behind. In this context, investments in public employment services are very important. As public employment services become more efficient and more able to use technology to connect young people to jobs and facilitate the matching between the supply and demand, they will also be more effective at targeting disadvantaged groups.

They will be able to offer young people special services that understand the needs of young people and their context and being able to refer young people to different services or refer them back to education. They will guide them as they take part in this transition from school to work or from unemployment to work or any transition that young people experience in the labour market.

It is also part of the inclusiveness to think about the voice of young people and how we together promote their voices and their agency. This is a good part of the work that SOS Children’s Villages does: protecting young people but also fostering their voices and their agency so that they can easily integrate into their communities and into the labour market as well.

Inclusiveness means being able to bring the concerns of young women, of young people with disabilities, young people from indigenous communities or minority groups, but also young people that are without parental care, are living in care facilities or are just leaving care facilities.

I’m a big fan of the work of SOS Children’s Villages, and it is a reality that a lot of people don’t know about. I am happy to make people more aware about it. It is important.