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October 24, 2014

Solutions to Youth Unemployment – An Excerpt

Earlier this year, Anthony and I started work on a project with the Global Solutions Network to investigate solutions to the global youth unemployment crisis. We specifically framed the project in terms of solutions given there’s far more than enough focus on the scale of the problem. There are nearly 300 million unemployed or inactive youth around the world, and the short and long-term consequences of inaction or ineffective action towards getting them to work are significant.

The report covers three main areas – skills development, entrepreneurship, and related policy issues. We’re looking forward to being able to share the final report later this fall. In the interim, here’s an excerpt on one of the case studies we’ve developed that looks at an innovative program led by Ottawa-based Digital Opportunities Trust .  Their ReachUP! StartUP!  and TeachUP! programs offer a great example of how networks of stakeholders can address youth unemployment. In addition, the program’s recent migration from Rwanda to Ottawa is perhaps even more insightful and shows how ideas from the around the globe can be put to work at home.

If you’d like to learn more about this project, get in touch.

Putting Youth in Charge – ReachUP! StartUP! TeachUP!

If growing up in an impoverished central African country weren’t disadvantage enough, trying to enter the labour market as a young female in a male dominated field like engineering only adds to the challenge. For 22 year old engineering graduate Noella Akayezu, those challenges left her with little chance of landing full-time employment in her field, and few other formal opportunities.

Fast forward two years and Noella’s future in Rwanda looks distinctively brighter. She now has two years of work experience related to business development under her belt, and is in the planning stages of launching her own maintenance engineering firm.

What’s behind this dramatic change? In large part, a one-year internship with the Digital Opportunities Trust (DOT), an Ottawa-based non-governmental organization that works with both public and private partners to build the entrepreneurial capacity of youth in developing countries. Through its global network of partners, its diversity of public and private stakeholders and its use of technology as a platform, DOT is an effective example of a GSN in action.  Structured as an Operational and Delivery Network for employment, DOT strives to create economic, educational and social opportunities for those in the developing world and in emerging markets. Through its three “UP!” programs, DOT works with recent university and college graduates and puts them through rigorous training programs where they learn to be facilitators, communicators and project leaders. These interns then work within their communities to help a next generation of youth build confidence and skills towards the launch of entrepreneurial and community development projects. Since 2000, DOT has impacted over 4500 youth though its three project streams – ReachUp! StartUp! And TeachUp!

Noella Akayezu participated in DOT’s ReachUp! Program. Her confidence soared as she worked across the country, training high school and university students on ICT and entrepreneurship skills, and providing coaching on small business development. Self-described as quiet and shy, Noella says the experience helped her break down these personal barriers. It also gave her a richer understanding of the long-term impacts of her country’s devastating history, including a vicious genocide in 1994 that led to the death of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis, the ethnic minority in Rwanda.

DOT provides interns with one month of intensive training on everything from writing and collaboration skills to the in’s and out’s of starting a business. The program’s subsequent reach and impact is dramatic. Not only has Noella catapulted her career forward, but over the course of her one-year term, she has provided training and mentorship to over 400 Rwandan young adults—a very significant multiplier effect that demonstrates the power of DOT’s train the trainer model. Noella, and other interns like her, help bridge professional and cultural norms that discriminate against youth and their lack of experience. “DOT teaches us to recognize what we have to offer, said Noella, “and how to use it to springboard our own experiences.”

Noella describes this process as one of mutual benefit. While her students benefit from training and development, the ongoing interaction between intern and students creates an iterative process of confidence building and, eventually, business ideation. In the process, “I discovered that I have a lot to share, real skills that can help both myself and others. Most importantly, I learned that I have a lot to offer beyond my education. I can be an entrepreneur, and now I have the confidence and experience to follow my passions.”

Noella claims that prior to her DOT experience, she aspired to be a maintenance engineer for a state company. “Now I want to work for myself and be my own boss,” she said. “I don’t want to wait for others to give me a job, especially as it’s very difficult to be a young professional woman in Rwanda in fields that are viewed as traditionally male-oriented.” Working with DOT has allowed not only allowed Noella to formulate ideas for a new business of her own, but to save money to invest in her new venture.

Noella’s experience with DOT is not unique. While the majority of her fellow university graduates are still without formal employment, especially her female peers, the DOT experience sees the majority of interns and students move quickly into either entrepreneurial ventures or scooped up by employers who value the training and experience that DOT provides.  Through the ReachUP! Initiative operating primarily in East Africa, 90 percent of participants have left with improved self-esteem and greater confidence, and 40 percent of participants find paying jobs, become entrepreneurs, or expand their businesses. And since 2006, through TeachUP!, over 1,700 interns have helped 22,600 teachers integrate new technologies into their classrooms for an impact that touches over 670,000 students. Follow up surveys have shown that 97 percent of teachers noted an increase in student excitement and 96 percent of teachers noted a positive change in their students’ acceleration of learning.

This transformation from job seeker to job creator is the key to contemporary employment creation, and at the heart of solutions to youth unemployment. As DOT founder Janet Longmore notes, “The key to the issue of youth unemployment is having youth drive solutions themselves through the enabling power of technology.” She argues that facilitating these solutions requires a significant mindset shift both for others, and their respect of youth, as well youth themselves and their conception of what work is.  Rather than looking to others for employment, the solution lies in having youth, and their peers, work to develop skill sets that set them up to be the creators of employment. Doing so effectively relies on their integration into a global network of actors, both public and private, each of whom brings resources and experience that the youth involved can build upon.

From South to North – ReachUP! Goes North

Some might question the replicability of DOT’s success in places like Rwanda, or its relevance in the mature economies profiled in this report. A recent initiative by DOT, however, is likely to prove both wrong. In October 2014, the organization launched ReachUp! North as a pilot project to bring the lessons and insights gained in Rwanda to youth in Ottawa, Canada. The Ottawa project, however, seeks to tackle a multifaceted youth employment challenge.  In particular the network hopes to address significantly higher-than-average youth unemployment rates among Indigenous youth in Ottawa.

Doing so builds on the same peer-to-peer model that saw Noella succeed in Kigali. At the time of writing Noella had joined the DOT team in Ottawa to help bring her insights and experience from Kigali to Ottawa, and to help mentor local youth experiencing some of the same issues she faced on her path to entrepreneurship. In particular, ReachUp! North connects DOT’s organizational experience with local leadership from the Assembly of Seven Generation (A7G), an indigenous youth-led organization, as well as partners from the City of Ottawa and several private organizations.

In order to tackle the simultaneous economic and cultural challenges facing Indigenous youth, A7G leaders worked with DOT staff to integrate cultural practices and traditional teachings into a curriculum that builds 21st century digital skills. As Gabrielle Fayant, Program Coordinator for ReachUp!North notes, “Someone who is not young and is not Indigenous will not understand the youth of today…if young people feel as though they weren’t involved in steering the program, they’ll be less likely to engage in it.”  Her colleague Brock Lewis adds, “We’re trying to give young Indigenous peoples their identities back. With it, their confidence will return, and with that their ability to participate meaningfully in an economic way will grow.”

While the pilot phase of the program has just begun, DOT and A7G hope to see 180 Indigenous youth partake in the programming. In so doing, they hope to build a flexible yet replicable model for culturally-attuned entrepreneurship development that plays a meaningful role in providing Indigenous youth with the means to succeed.

To learn more about the DEEP Centre’s work on solutions to youth unemployment, get in touch with Dan Herman at dherman@deepcentre.com

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The Centre for Digital Entrepreneurship and Economic Performance turns research findings into practical insights and tools for stimulating innovation, entrepreneurship and job creation.