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Asian Employment Forum: Youth employment: “We are not the problem, we are the solution”

According to the latest figures Asia’s 378 million-strong youth labour force accounts for more than one in five of the region’s total labour force and 58 per cent of the global youth labour force. Although the proportion of young people in the workforce is projected to decline by 2015, a new report prepared for the ILO’s Asian Employment Forum (to be held in Beijing on 13-15 August) says that for many countries in South East Asia and the Pacific, the youth employment challenge remains huge. ILO Online reports.

Article | 09 August 2007

BOUGAINVILLE, Salomon Islands (ILO Online) – It is Genevieve Doni’s second day in school. She looks unsure of herself, probably because despite being 17 years old, she is only in primary school.

Like tens of thousands of young people on Bougainville Island, Genevieve missed out on the chance of an education. She was born just before the start of a 10-year civil conflict over the independence of Bougainville from Papua New Guinea. When the time came to go to school the conflict was at its height.

Genevieve spent her childhood hiding in the mountains and rain forests, trying to survive. Schools were burnt down and teachers fled.

But now, things are different. She concedes she feels strange being in primary school, but even on her second day she is motivated. “I should be in secondary school, but I want to continue learning. I want one day to get a job in an office, so I can look after my family. Many of my friends are still out of school. I feel lucky.” (Note 1)

There are many obstacles facing young people like Genevieve who want to get an education and a job in the Pacific. The area is characterised by small, low income developing countries with high economic and political volatility.

The 22 island nations cover about one fourth of the globe, but the total population, excluding Australia and New Zealand, is only about nine million, more than two-thirds of whom were in Papua New Guinea. Seven of these states are ILO members: Fiji, Kiribati, the Marshall Islands, Papua New Guinea, Samoa (previously Western Samoa), the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The last decade has seen a rapid increase in the youth population (ages 15-24) in these countries. In 2005, 58 per cent of the population was aged under 25, and about one in five were between 15 and 24. This increase is expected to continue; if current demographic trends continue the number of young people will rise 42 per cent by 2050.

There are systematically higher open unemployment rates among young people than among those over 25. In Papua New Guinea for example, almost half of those registered as unemployed are under 25.

In Samoa only about 1,000 of 4,500 the school leavers every year are able to find work. In Kiribati, where the total number employed in the cash economy is just 13,000, about 2,000 young people look for jobs for the first time every year. In Vanuatu it’s estimated that there are just 500 new formal sector jobs available each year, although 3,500 leave school annually.

These statistics do not reflect the distress lack of work causes young people or indeed the difficult choices they face. The majority cannot afford to remain unemployed and hence are not registered as such. If they do not find a paid job they are expected to work the family land or take casual work.

Others are under-employed in the informal economy – usually with low earnings, poor working conditions, no career prospects and uncertain social protection other than that provided by traditional social structures. Some resort to illegal activities.

Youth employment challenge remains huge in some countries

According to a report (Note 2) compiled by the International Labour Organization (ILO) for the Asian Employment Forum, this huge youth employment challenge affects not just the Pacific but many countries in South East Asia too. For example, by 2015 the youth labour force is expected to expand by more than eight per cent in Malaysia, by around 17 per cent in Pakistan and the Philippines, 22 per cent in Nepal and Lao People’s Democratic Republic, by nearly 29 per cent in Papua New Guinea and an astonishing 44 per cent in Afghanistan.

“These countries will face enormous pressure to provide education and create jobs for millions of young labour market entrants in the coming years”, says Gyorgy Sziraczki, senior ILO economist.

Paradoxically, other parts of Asia will have to face the challenges brought by a declining pool of youth labour. East Asia is facing a 10.4 per cent drop in young workers by 2015. Thailand and Sri Lanka will see a similar trend, while Japan and the Islamic Republic of Iran will experience a drop of more than 15 per cent.

“These developments will take some pressure off the youth labour market. Countries with declining numbers of young people in their labour force will have the opportunity to focus on improving pathways from education to work, enhancing job quality, and ensuring that young women have the same opportunities as young men”, says Sachiko Yamamoto, ILO Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific.

According to Yamamoto, if young people could find decent work early in their working lives it would help them avoid a vicious cycle of unemployment or under-employment, poor working conditions and social exclusion. But if the causes and implications of the youth employment challenge are not tackled, progress towards better economic and political governance in the affected countries will remain uncertain.

In the words of one young delegate to the 2005 Pacific Youth Summit for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals: “What should be done to improve the lives of young people? More opportunity should be given to build confidence, skills and capacity. We are not the problem; we are the solution to the problems.”

Note 1 – Source: UNICEF, Papua New Guinea.

Note 2Visions for Asia’s Decent Work Decade: Growth and Jobs to 2015, International Labour Organization, Asian Regional Forum on Growth, Employment and Decent Work, Beijing, People’s Republic of China, 13-15 August 2007.