Exploring innovative solutions to increase job opportunities for vulnerable and at-risk youth in Latin America and the Caribbean was the central topic of a two-day conference in Bogotá, Columbia, co-hosted by the International Youth Foundation (IYF). Supported by the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF) of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the event attracted nearly 120 experts, practitioners and key stakeholders from across the region and globally. Co-hosts of the event were the Fundación Universitaria Panamericana (FUP); Corporación Colombia Digital (CCD); Caja de Compensacion Familiar de Antioquia (Comfenalco); and the Mayor’s Office of Medellín.  

Fernando Jiménez-Ontiveros, Deputy Manager for Strategy at MIF/IDB, underscored the urgent need for action around this critical issue. “The conference was important in putting forth what we know and what we still need to explore in the area of youth employability, scaling up job training and placement projects, entrepreneurship and many related themes,” he said. “All these issues are especially relevant to the MIF as youth enter the labor market in increasing numbers in Latin America and the Caribbean, and vulnerable youth make up half of the total youth population.”   

Ken Yamashita, the USAID Mission Director for Colombia, highlighted the value of building alliances to have an impact. “The Conference in Bogotá was extremely valuable in highlighting what is working in supporting vulnerable youth, routes for scaling up initiatives, and how practitioners, businesses, and governments can join forces to generate the opportunities youth need to succeed in today’s economy,” he said. “This support is especially relevant in Colombia where at-risk youth face particularly difficult choices and pressures as they approach and reach adulthood.”  

During roundtable discussions, participants explored the trends, opportunities, and challenges of youth employment in Latin America; how to scale up successful programs; the importance of building multi-sector partnerships; how to measure and evaluate impact; and how to engage employers in the process. The Bogota event was the fifth in a series of youth employment learning sessions held around the world that IYF co-sponsored with the World Bank, IDB, and USAID.  

Jaime Andres Gomez, a youth employment expert, summed up the Forum’s central theme: “Youth are uniquely equipped to be part of the solution—and should be seen as such, rather than as part of the problem—because of their creativity, flexibility, and openness to learning,” he said. Referring to the current economic crisis, Gomez said this “youth bulge” represents an opportunity to boost the region’s economic development.  “The challenge,” he concluded, “is to empower every young person with the rights and career opportunities to succeed.”  

Wendy Cunningham, Coordinator of the World Bank’s Children and Youth Unit, underscored the significant challenges facing today’s youth, and urged attendees to continue to develop integrated support systems that recognize the different levels of risk among the region’s young people.  

Among the lessons learned identified at the event:

  • Youth should be supported to stay in school, and be provided remedial studies, work study programs, and continued investments in quality and relevant education to ensure they are ready for the workplace.
  • Comprehensive job training that combines instruction in technical skills and life skills is a key strategy for youth employment.
  • Going beyond job and entrepreneurship training to incorporate job placement activities and involve employers should be a fundamental component of youth employability services.

Participants also discussed next steps to improve youth employability across the region. These included: improve the quality of education and make it more relevant to the labor market; scale up “what works” to respond to the enormous challenges facing disadvantaged youth; develop public policies that better respond to the tough realities of young people; and strengthen institutional capacity to manage job placement services. “It is critical that we learn from “what is working” and scale up interventions to have real impact,” concluded the MIF’s Fernando Jimenez-Ontiveros.