Jobs and the Future of Work

4 ways to help put Syria’s youth back to work

Workers collect the rubble of damaged buildings to be recycled and reused for reconstruction, under the supervision of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Homs, Syria.

Workers collect the rubble of damaged buildings in Homs, Syria Image: REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen
Chief Executive Officer, The LEGO Foundation
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The war in Syria will end. We don’t know when, but when it does, the challenge of rebuilding this once proud and beautiful country will rest firmly on the shoulders of the children of Syria – the next generation.

But with the level of damage it has sustained over the last six years – to its infrastructure, its schools, and its hearts and minds – how do we stop Syria’s next generation from losing their way? During the post-conflict period of regeneration, youth employment will be key.

Post-conflict, this will continue to be a highly complex environment to operate in, particularly in the areas of politics and security. The obvious question, the one that will stop many in their tracks, is: where on earth do we start?

Four years ago, Typhoon Haiyan swept through the Philippines, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. As part of the emergency response, Plan International worked with partner Accenture on a youth-employment program to ignite opportunities for young people in some of the most devastated areas. What we learned from this experience is relevant to the many challenges a youth-employment program in Syria will face. Here are four areas we found were key to getting young people back into work.

1. Selling shared value

Youth-employment programs work best when there’s shared value between the government, business sector and NGOs. To reach this sweet spot and build proper partnerships, you need a clear understanding of both the market and the reality on the ground. Recent research we conducted in Latin America on why businesses were motivated to get involved with youth employment programs in Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador demonstrated three main drivers: 1) it was good for business; 2) corporate social responsibility; and 3) for some companies, simply due to existing links to Plan International.

The first point – being good for business – feels like it is stating the obvious, but it is an important message to reinforce. Well-run youth-employment programs create wealth that goes back into the economy through creating new consumers with increased spending power, reduce the cost of training for governments and businesses, and provide a ready-made workforce. This should be the predominant factor for businesses to invest their time and effort in such programs; they need to be made aware that there are benefits beyond just being seen to be philanthropic.

As an INGO, we strive to understand the exacting needs of locally operating businesses. When entering an emergency arena or area of conflict, the immediate thought (and source of ready employment) will be reconstruction. But setting up a generation of Syrian youth to work solely in the construction industry is only ever going to be a short-term fix. In the Philippines, our experience demonstrated that courses to train youth with the manual and technical skills for reconstruction after Typhoon Haiyan didn’t provide a sustainable solution. Many trained youth were struggling to find jobs post-reconstruction and, while having the technical skills for employment opportunities, they now lacked the entrepreneurial skills to find a new source of income generation in the absence of ongoing jobs. We learned that it is essential to create a more holistic approach to youth-employment programming following a humanitarian disaster.

In the Philippines, we found that a good mix of skills and training made for the most attractive candidates for employers. Our training included pre-employment support (cash, to help support the youth and their family whilst they’re still unemployed during the training period, and thereby help retention rates in the training courses); hard, technical skills (role-specific); employability skills; and digital literacy (which proved popular with both businesses and the trainees). Mentoring and coaching for entrepreneurs also proved successful and led to sustained income generation.

2. Applying a gender lens

Girls, especially adolescent girls, are one of the most marginalised groups in the world, and estimates suggest that girls in the Middle East and North Africa are 25% less likely to be in school than boys. Social norms and traditions continue to be major barriers, and perceptions and expectations on the role of women and men in the family, in the labor market and in broader society contribute to girls and boys being valued differently.

With this in mind, it’s imperative we look at future youth-employment programs in Syria – from scoping and planning, through to implementation – through a gender lens. In the Philippines project, for example, the number of male participants who enrolled in programs aimed at providing technical training was much higher than females. Conversely, more women were interested in focusing on entrepreneurship training than men, as they were more likely to be running households, and as such would prefer to work nearer home. A number of issues were not anticipated at the design phase of this project, including safe spaces for mothers and children during training, separate toilet facilities and the fact that some companies preferred to hire females. These aspects should be considered as part of any project design in the future.

3. Taking a flexible approach to achieve lasting change

A flexible approach is key when operating in an environment with limited infrastructure, and what can sometimes – regardless of how good your research is – be only a partial view of the reality on the ground. This starts with the donor and the project they are funding. It soon become evident on the ground in the Guiuan, Salcedo, Balangkayan, Hernani and Tacloban municipalities of the Philippines that the initial scope of the youth-employment project, particularly in its timings, was too strict to be feasible. Accenture, long-term partners of Plan International, and sponsor of this particular project, were accommodating of the need to adjust the project parameters to achieve the end goal, allowing us to adapt to the situation on the ground. This flexibility is often not possible, and highlights the benefit of NGOs developing good working relationships with the corporate sector based on mutual trust and understanding.

4. Building strong and collaborative relationships starts now

Building networks with communities, the government and local businesses will be crucial in any youth-employment programs in Syria. In the Philippines, we found that talking to potential employers early on was beneficial, as it gave them a good idea of what to expect from the workforce of young people we were in the process of training.

In the context of Syria, collaboration across NGOs and their private-sector partners is imperative, where multiple programs covering a myriad of objectives will be competing for resources and attention. Here there is scope for both chaos and opportunity, in equal measure. Working closely will help dovetail efforts, reduce duplication and increase the collective impact of our work, but these relationships should be forged early on, in anticipation of what is to come.

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