Day after day more experts confirm that unemployment has a lot to do with lack of skilled labour, and less with lack of job opportunities.

The labor market in Latin America is paradoxical: while youth unemployment is rising -it is three times higher than the average rate-, 40% of companies have vacancies that they cannot cover because they do not find profiles with the necessary skillset.

More than half of the kids leave school without the basic skills they were supposed to have acquired during twelve years of so-called education.

They lack both the most theoretical skills such as reading, mathematics as well as and socio-emotional skills essential for almost any job.

The reason for this is a vicious circle. When you ask companies they tell you that they prefer to employ fewer young people because they are less reliable; they are concerned about unpunctuality, lack of commitment, that they do not work as a team, that they do not have good standards of behavior.

They do not know how to socialize in the workplace and they do not have the opportunity to work, so they do not learn those skills.

Five years ago, a pilot program known as Neo was born with the sole intention to provide a solution to these paradoxes, 

Elena Heredero, leading specialist of IDB Lab, the innovation laboratory of the Inter-American Development Bank, one of the initiators of the initiative, explains that after studying the problem they saw that it was “too big and multidimensional” to look for solutions in a single sector. 

“It’s systemic problem,” she says. Therefore, the idea was not to focus on those who are young today, since tomorrow they will no longer be young, but rather those who coach them,  employment agencies, teachers and companies.

Neo focuses on responding to three major shortcomings:

1. Vocational guidance: It is very neglected throughout the educational system, which does not  take into account socio-emotional skills, also called soft skills, which are fundamental to the current work market and that include communication, teamwork, and problem solving abilities, among others.

2. Youth employment services: Training centers, if they exist in a specific market or country, do not have specialized services that make permanent contact with companies.

3. Modernizing Pedagogy: In the words of Heir, actively learning that is not limited to the teacher’s talk.

The program has been implemented in 10 countries in Latin America. More than 1,500 employers have been integrated and benefited 380,000 young people, according to the Inter-American Development Bank.

In order to close the gaps between supply and demand in the labor market, each country has devised a solution based on its characteristics.

The first diagnosis that is made in a subject nation is that its educational system has many deficiencies, which is why the program sets three main goals:

1. Influence professional training programs with supply and demand studies to know what the market needed and what was offered.

2. Design plans more tailored to what companies require, by starting courses to improve the quality of teaching. 

3. Create the commitment to vocational education, training counselors to lead young people to what best suits their preferences and aptitudes.

In Panama, the program started in 2016 as a pilot project and there is still no study of quantitative results.

The intention of its promoters is to expand it to measure how it affects the employability of young people. 

Until now, the program left as a legacy the tool Set your Course, which measures aptitudes and interests of students to guide them to the trades to which they can get more out of.

Climbing this type of initiative is the main challenge. “Neo is a wonderful program, it is well designed, but we need to make it a public policy,” program creators say.

Any government is going to tell you that it understands the problem and that it wants to resolve it, but applying it decisively throughout the territory is not cheap, neither in financial terms nor in human resources.

In the opinion of International Labor Organization ILO experts, at the same time that this type of program is implemented, there has to be an in-depth review of the educational systems so that they provide young people with both cognitive and socio-emotional skills that prepares them for the jobs of the future, not those of the past.

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