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Life Skills Count

Going beyond technical training to make at-risk youth employable

There are 32 million young people in Latin America and the Caribbean—one in every five youth aged 15-29— that neither work nor study. In order to prepare these young people for workplace success, job training programs need to go beyond technical instruction and also teach “life skills,” such as communication, reliability, and teamwork.

This is one of the main findings of the report,“Give Youth a Chance: An Agenda for Action,” just published by the Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a member of the Inter-American Development Group. The report looks back on the most important lessons learned from the MIF’s portfolio of over 120 youth employment and entrepreneurship training projects around the region, and sets out priorities for its work with the next generation of young people in Latin America and the Caribbean.

A distinctive feature of all MIF youth employment projects is their life skills component. This push for teaching youth life skills has been validated by employers participating in MIF programs. They have consistently reported that, above all, they want to hire employees who possess workplace-ready skills, such as communication, teamwork, motivation and responsibility. Technical skills, they say, can be learned on the job. Likewise, a 2010 IDB survey shows that about 80 percent of employers in Argentina, Brazil and Chile indicated that positive socio-emotional attitudes, or life skills, such as empathy, adaptability, and responsibility, among others, are the most difficult capacities to find among workers.

In addition to teaching youth the life skills employers want, many projects also introduce complementary life planning activities in this component. These activities help youth to assess who they are, their aspirations for the future, and to define realistic steps toward achieving these goals.

Regarding the duration of the life skills component, MIF projects have experimented with a wide range of life skills training lengths, from a minimum of 40 hours to a maximum of three months. This variation largely depends on the profiles of youth beneficiaries; typically, at-risk youth will require more life skills development. In general, MIF projects have shown that the more time dedicated to life skills, the better.

However, in many projects, depending on the complexity of the sector-specific skills youth must learn, more hours are dedicated to the technical training component than to the life skills component. It is therefore important to apply life skills throughout the training process to help reinforce positive attitudes and behaviors and maximize teaching time for these skills.

Other lessons related to teaching life skills include:

Trainer quality matters: Regardless of the length of time dedicated to life skills training, the quality of trainers is key. It is critical that trainers have warm, supportive, and enthusiastic personalities to build trust with the youth, as in many cases they serve as much needed positive role models. For example, in a MIF project in Guatemala City with Grupo Ceiba, almost 90 percent of the life skills and violence prevention trainers, or “mediators,” are also program graduates.

Coming from the same turbulent communities, they know better than anyone how to get through to these at-risk youth, who in turn look up to them as examples of what they could become—responsible, caring, gainfully employed adults. Providing quality training also requires that trainers can handle the added complications that come along with working with at-risk youth. Programs should have links to social workers or psychologists who can support and train the staff on how to deal with especially difficult situations, as well as to provide counseling directly to youth who need extra support.

Get creative: Interactive and participatory methods are especially relevant in gaining youth interest in learning and practicing life skills. MIF projects have tested a variety of innovative approaches, including using sport, the performing arts, and technology (e.g. basic computer skills, e-mail, social networks, etc.) to attract youth interest and imbue life skills in youth. Creative approaches can help programs “speak” to youth in a way that makes sense to them, allowing life skills to resonate more effectively.

Performing arts as a getway for engagement: The innovative Galpão Aplauso program, geared toward at-risk youth from Rio de Janeiro’s sprawling favelas, uses the performing arts to build youth life skills. Through an intensive one-year immersion program, Talentos da Vez (“Talent Time”), young people dance, sing, play instruments, learn circus acrobatics, and express themselves in other creative ways, all the while internalizing values such as ethics, respect, teamwork, and honesty. This process of social rehabilitation through art provides youth with a foundation from which to grow as members of the workforce and society. For the most talented participants, the program may lead to jobs in Rio’s entertainment industry, while others are trained to work in fast-growing fields like construction and retail management. While the program is still underway, initial results are promising and demonstrate the transformative power of art when working to build the employability skills of at-risk youth.

About the MIF

The Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF), a member of the Inter-American Development Bank Group, works with the private sector to support economic growth and poverty reduction in Latin America and the Caribbean. One of its main areas of focus is youth employment and entrepreneurship training; over the past 18 years, the MIF has carried out over 120 youth projects across the region, benefiting more than 235,000 disadvantaged young people in 22 countries. For more information, visit www.fomin.org.