Youth researchers uncover innovative employment solutions

Youth researchers uncover innovative employment solutions

Tsega Tadesse Belachew


Two youth working on an assignment together

Youth unemployment is a global challenge and data shows that nearly 40% of youth do not find stable employment despite their level of education. IREX partnered with youth researchers for a youth-led global study in Iraq, Kenya, and Guatemala focused on understanding young people’s perspectives and lived experiences during their search for work. Based on the study, the research team produced a guide for designing youth-centric and innovative employment programs for development practitioners. Key insights from the guide include the need to redefine success in the learning-to-earning journey, provide mental health support for job seekers, mainstream support to navigate self-employment and entrepreneurship, and equip job seekers with practical experiences and skills.

According to the International Labor Organization, supporting young people to secure work successfully can have a defining impact on their lifelong employability, well-being, economic, and social contribution--leading to positive ripple effects for the community. Though many experts have studied global unemployment, few have researched it from a youth-led perspective. 

With a desire to design youth-centered programs that support youth in their learning-to-earning transitions, IREX partnered with youth researchers on a large-scale global study aimed to prioritize young people’s voices and lived experiences in decisions about youth employment programs, agendas, and funding. The vision for the study is based on a recognition that the predominant voices in development prioritize macroeconomic quantitative studies with youth as subjects of research. The youth-led mixed-method approach of this study seeks to challenge that power dynamic through research co-leadership by youth in the global south and qualitative methods that look at nuances in young people’s perspectives and lived realities.

The study reached 1,078 young people aged 18-35 and interviewees and survey respondents were selected to share unique perspectives across intersectional identities: gender, race, ethnicity, religion, and ability in three geopolitically and economically diverse countries. 

Here are six key insights from the study that we compiled into a guide for designing youth-centric employment programs:

1. Redefine success in the learning-to-earning journey

Our study revealed that redefining success is key to addressing youth unemployment. Redefining success is empowering each individual to define and pursue the best career path(s) that will bring them fulfillment including financial stability, meaningful work, growth, learning, self-expression, and work-life balance. Many young people revealed that they feel pressure to achieve one aspirational definition of success: graduate from college and quickly secure a well-paying job in the field they studied. If things do not go as planned, graduates experience confusion and self-doubt, which can negatively affect their self-esteem and mental health. Instead of these struggles, youth can be empowered and equipped to experiment with different opportunities and to define success for themselves. Youth programs can highlight unconventional success stories that demonstrate career paths with obstacles, failure, pivots into different fields, self-employment, volunteerism, and informal work. Programs can also teach young job seekers to be flexible and interrogate their definition of success on their own terms by gaining experiences, networks, and transferable skills for evolving opportunities within a changing world of work. 

2. Prioritize mental health for youth employment programs

Results from the study show that the way young people feel and think shapes their experiences and outcomes during their transition into work. Interviewees repeatedly mentioned that they would like more support for their emotional well-being during this period. The pressure to graduate and immediately secure a job can lead to anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and failure which can hinder progress in what is usually a challenging time. Other studies have shown that positive mindsets, i.e. optimistic, adaptable, and proactive perspectives can make a real difference for a jobseeker. Youth employment programs can play a supportive role by prioritizing mental health counseling and helping young people develop socio-emotional skills such as processing difficult emotions when facing disappointment and resilience to pursue opportunities despite setbacks to succeed in their search for work. 

3. Programs must recognize that work is no longer just full-time and formal

Participants in this study explored informal work, gig work, self-employment, and entrepreneurship, however, few had guidance on how to leverage these types of work for long-term career success. Encouraging youth to consider these paths is important because youth can leverage the income, skills, networks, and credibility they gain from these types of work. Young entrepreneurs described feeling conflicted because their financial standing did not welcome the same level of respect that others in full-time, formal employment in the field that they studied received. Youth employment programs can encourage support for and improve exposure to unconventional work paths to enable youth to utilize their income, networks, and experiences to advance their long-term career success.

4. Equip youth with practical experiences and skills

Having work experience and skills can be the deciding factor between a graduate who gets employed and one who does not. Youth employment programs can help youth identify and leverage available opportunities to develop experiences and skills, including volunteerism, school clubs, hobbies, youth projects, entrepreneurship, social good projects, internships, and class projects. They can also help youth translate their skills and experiences within non-professional or social settings into professional descriptions on their resumes, e.g. sharing organization and empathy skills from caring for younger siblings. 

5. Informal social networks can be a game-changer

Social networks like family and friend groups play a crucial role in bringing information, opportunities, and connections that open doors for youth and can shape how young people define success and work. They also provide significant socio-emotional and holistic support that helps youth navigate their transition into work. Youth employment programs can recognize the value of intergenerational communities by making up-to-date resources and information available to equip caregivers, parents, and educators with career information. Programs can also experiment with community, peer-to-peer support, and intergenerational program models.

6. Tailor programs for diverse identities and needs

Youth programs should be designed and managed with flexibility so that they can address the unique barriers young people face within their communities because of their identities. Our desk review revealed that 40% of the world’s population lacks access to education in a language they speak or understand, with ethnic minority populations, girls, and women more significantly affected, which highlights the need for culturally appropriate support during school-to-work journeys. Men are more likely to be internet users than women in two-thirds of the world and addressing gender disparities in digital access helps support women in their school-to-work journeys. To tailor youth programs for diverse youth identities, program designers can support young people to make decisions within the program design process and partner with youth-led and local organizations that understand the barriers faced by youth across intersectional identities. 

The results of our study underscore the importance of having young people’s voices at the center of youth programs. IREX’s youth-led Learning-to-Earning Guide aims to support the process through which decision-makers, program designers, grant organizations, and researchers engage youth at the decision-making table for youth employment programs and agendas.