- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 5, 2005

Jane Stewart, deputy executive director for the unemployment section of the International Labor Organization, was interviewed by special correspondent John Zarocostas Saturday in Geneva on the sidelines of the ILO’s annual meeting of labor ministers. From 1999 to 2004, she was Canada’s minister for human-resources development.

Question: The report paints a dim picture of youth unemployment worldwide. Is this problem more acute in the industrialized world or in developing countries?

Answer: When we look at the data, we continue to see [that] around the world, youth unemployment is two up to six times greater than the rate of general unemployment. … It’s particularly dramatic, however, in the developing world, because that’s where the majority of young people are.

Eighty-five percent of young people are living in low- to medium-income countries, particularly sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. That’s where the population is. That’s where the poverty levels are highest … and the direction we received here from our [ministerial] meeting is that the ILO had best turn its attention to those countries in most need.

Q: The report shows that 660 million young people will be entering the work force by 2015. Can the world economy absorb these new job seekers at its current pace?

A: From our modeling and research, it’s clear that at its current level of economic growth, the world economy will not be able to sustain the creation of sufficient jobs for the young people that will be entering the workplace.

We … see that the world economy would have to grow at about 10 percent [per year], just to sustain the number of jobs that will be required today. … We see a real challenge facing the world in terms of being able to effectively utilize the talents of young people in the world of work.

Q: If policy-makers could generate enough jobs, the report estimates that halving youth unemployment would generate between $2.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion dollars a year in the world economy equivalent to 7 percent of the world gross domestic product. Why isn’t this happening?

A: Youth are a tremendous asset, and understanding the particular challenges they face in entering the world of work is a focus of world interest. We look at the aspirations, the hopes and the capacities of young people today as the most educated young people the world has ever seen. But we haven’t understood the particular challenges they face in entering the world of work, nor the solutions to enhance their transition from school to work. That’s what the conference here is turning its attention to. …

Q: Which countries are in the forefront of generating jobs for young people?

A: We’re starting to see … all countries in the world wanting to understand the particularities young people face in terms of the school-to-work transition, and we are starting to find particular areas of policy that can be attended to, to enhance the opportunities young people have.

We know that the issue of aggregate demand is particularly important. Youth are bound up in the overall employment circumstances, but the question of fluctuations in aggregate demand is particularly hard. Because as we know, unlike adults, youth don’t have the job experience; they are subject to the last-in, first-out practice. And therefore, as fluctuations in aggregate demand come about, they are hit hardest.

We know that there are particular sectors of economies that are youth absorptive. In our discussion, sectors like construction, public works, tourism, culture and sport, mining and certain resource-based industries are particularly youth absorptive.

Understanding that relationship and encouraging opportunities in those sectors can be of value. …

Q: The report says 47 percent of the world’s unemployed — a total of 88 million people are youth, and that at the moment many are living on less than $1 a day. Can this lead to social upheavals if it’s not addressed?

A: This point is of particular interest to the ILO. On one hand, we do have 88 million young men and women who are unemployed. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

There are hundreds of young people who are living on less than $2 a day. They go and look for work, yet despite their best efforts, they’re unable to support themselves or their families. …

It’s not only about looking at youth unemployment, but at youth employment. These youth are working in agriculture. They’re working in the informal economy, in urban centers in the service sector, but in an unregulated fashion.

These young people are not working productively. And trying to increase productivity in those places where they’re working has got to be a priority in terms of solving the challenge. From our point of view, it really isn’t looking at the importance of “decent work” — which includes fair remuneration, social protection, freely chosen work — and it’s through “decent work” that young people will work their way out of poverty.

Q: Illiteracy stands out as a major impediment to many young people seeking employment. How serious is this in the developing world?

A: Basic skills of literacy and numeracy are prerequisites for young people. … Looking at the Millennium Development Goals, providing universal primary education to all young children is an urgent priority. And in solving youth unemployment, we need to go back to those very first principles of universal primary education to break the vicious circle of poverty.

Q: Which countries are doing the most?

A: In the context of our work with the youth-employment network, we have countries like Indonesia that have prepared a national action program and are now working to implement that with the help of partners like the ILO, and we are working productively with agencies like the World Bank in implementing this plan.

In Africa, we’re working in Senegal, where there is a cohesive and comprehensive program that’s been developed across ministries — and this is important to development —where ministries are coming together to recognize the contribution each can make in support of young people.

Q: What about Latin America and Western Europe?

A: There are many projects in Latin America focusing on “first job.” In Brazil, we see some successes there, where there are concentrated efforts on helping young people have access to work experience and a first job, and really addressing that concern of “no experience, no job,” and “no job, no experience.”

Q: In the advanced industrial economies, which countries are posting solid results on the youth-employment front?

A: The [Group of Eight, or G-8] countries, by and large, have turned their attention to the issue of youth employment and are continuing to develop strategies in response to the needs of young people.

In our discussions here, we see interventions from countries like the United Kingdom that have made a concerted effort to deal with most disadvantaged youth. Their approach has been to provide individual attention to young people at risk, young people who are disadvantaged.

Q: More than 55 percent of unemployed youth in the developing world are in rural areas. With reform in the agricultural sectors, what happens to the mass of these young people as they migrate to urban areas looking for work?

A: We see in a number of countries a focus and a concern that young people are migrating from rural parts into urban areas. It has been recommended that we turn our attention to realities facing young people in rural areas, and in more remote parts of the world, focusing on agriculture and increasing the productivity of work in the sector.

Q: What’s your advice to policy-makers in the youth-employment area? What are three or four “must-do” factors?

A: Some of the key messages are, we need to take a coherent and integrated approach. Governments need to make a political commitment to youth employment and to make a sustainable commitment.

They need to integrate across ministries. It’s not just the purview of the minister of youth and sport.

It means the minister of finance must become involved so that appropriate investments are made. The minister of industry has to be involved as we develop sectoral policies; trade has to be involved as we help young people make linkages to the outside world.

The ministries of education and training need to … deal with the question of employability and the mismatch of education to the labor market.

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