WASHINGTON, D.C. – April 24, 2017 – (HISPANICIZE WIRE) – Alejandra is a young Mexican woman, who dropped out of school at 16 years old due to family issues, and since then, she has been meandering through the informal sector without being able to gain an employment opportunity because she lacks critical job skills. In order to understand the difficulty that youth in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) – especially those who are part of the most vulnerable groups – have in being placed in jobs, it is critical to first understand a young person’s education level as they are entering the job market. Factors such as the number of years in school, the quality, and relevance of the education received, directly influences their probability of accessing a decent job.

Starting in 1950, education policies in the region were focused on improving the access to the first nine grades for children, these policies helped enrollment surpass 70%. However, this created two new challenges when it came to translating better education into better employment possibilities, and they are: the quality and relevancy of what was taught. Furthermore, the PISA 2015 test gives a gloomy outlook for the region in terms of reaching an OECD average score. Peru, for instance, is currently showing the best continuous improvement, however, is looking at a minimum of 21 years to reach the OECD average score. Furthermore, this indicator shows us that those countries which don’t accelerate reforms in the quality of education, will never reach the OECD average. Meanwhile, in Mexico, six out of ten youth, who graduated from twelfth grade, have the most basic understanding of mathematics and reading; which means that the average Mexican graduate does not understand what they read, and they only can complete the most basic math operations, according to the results from ENLACE 2014, a national education assessment.

Moreover, according to UNESCO, the school dropout rate after sixth grade is a serious problem with several dimensions of risk related to a youth’s employability. According to bibliographic reviews from the Social and Education Studies Center (Centro de Estudios Educativos y Sociales – CEES), the period from seven to twelve grade is critical for personality development, decision-making skills, forging values, and the consolidation of tolerance behavior and social abilities required to work in groups. In addition, these years are key to the formation of social integration, and if the youth does not receive appropriate support during this stage of life, they are exposed to a series of risks that may jeopardize their own as well as their countries’ development possibilities. Thus, becoming an important risk in security matters, crime, and human capital lost.

However, it is important to highlight the commitment of countries to improve the quality of education.

These countries have recognized the problem and they are willing to evaluate their quality. One example of this is the increasing number of countries which participated in PISA 2015, and the percentage of youth who took the test per country. Likewise, five additional countries are expected to conduct PISA 2018, and will most likely reach close to 50% representation from the region.

At the same time, governments are planning different strategies such as Paraguay and the Dominican Republic, where at this very moment, they are developing what is being called a “national system for standards and skills” to generate bridges and channels of communication, between education and the labor market, in order to help countries improve the quality and relevance of job training and education. Another important case to mention is Peru, a country committed to be an OECD member by 2020, and their major challenge identified is to improve the quality of education and work.

Finally, to generate qualified youth for the job market, it is important not to lose sight of the need of improving the quality of the inputs that youth receive from job training and employment institutions through professionals and teachers. In that sense, the NEO initiative has been a pioneer in developing the NEO Quality Standards Guide: A series of basic criteria tailored to LAC providers, which serves as a reference for institutions that offer training and employment services for youth, in order to measure their quality and relevance. For example, this guide will help measure the relevance of the contents of a training course to the local job market or the quality of a vocational orientation service for youth. In this effort, the NEO initiative targets to implement a pilot experience and for many institutions this will be the first evaluation experience they had in their entire history. The initiative will also allow more than 200 institutions in ten countries to carry out a self-evaluation process to develop a continuing improvement culture of quality and relevance of their services, with unconditional support from their governments. International Youth Foundation, stated: “After working for ten years on youth employability issues, we saw the need for a comprehensive system to help these job training and employment institutions assess and increase their quality through well-defined standards.”

Thanks to NEO initiative and to the momentum of the region on improving the quality and relevancy, CONALEP Nuevo Leon, a Mexican upper secondary education training institution, has promising results. The exercise of improving the quality of their career guidance and job intermediation services and of improving the relevance of the contents of their training courses to the local labor market, has preliminary outcomes: a 10% reduction in school dropout rate and a 70% rate of placement in formal jobs with good salaries and benefits, related to the youths’ studies after they graduate. Alejandra was able to enter the job market with formal employment at 23 years old, at a rate of double the minimum salary and dreaming of more advancement, according to her, “it changed my life”

*NEO is an initiative administered by the Inter-American Development Bank—through its Multilateral Investment Fund and Labor Markets division—and the International Youth Foundation, in partnership with major private companies: Arcos Dorados (the largest operator of McDonald’s restaurants in Latin America and the Caribbean), Caterpillar Foundation, Cemex, Microsoft, and Walmart, plus the Argentina-based nonprofit Fondation Forge and the Brazilian National Confederation of Industries.

*Francisco Larra is the regional coordinator of the New Employment Opportunities for Youth (NEO) initiative for the Multilateral Investment Fund. He has worked as a psychologist and educator assisting vulnerable youth in Central America.