Last year I met Sonja in El Salvador, a young woman of 17. She had just become a mother. As an unemployed young woman, she thought it was the best thing to do. But, as with so many of these cases, her boyfriend couldn’t pay the bills and left her. Youth is a time that should be filled with promise and hope for the future. For Sonia and many others in the region, the reality is different.

There are about 108 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 in Latin America and the Caribbean.  According to a new report by the International Labour Organization, economic growth in the region has not been strong enough to improve the outlook for young people trapped by the lack of employment.

Of all the unemployed people in the region, 40% are young. Joblessness is highest among young women and the poorest members of the population. Many of those who are working are in jobs with earnings of less than $1 a day, and there is little opportunity to progress. Finally, one in five young people are not even looking for work because they are discouraged and have given up. So what can they do?

Young men can join a gang; young women can get pregnant and join the legion of teenage single mothers – or end up spending their time on household tasks rather than looking for work.

The implications for current and future generations of young people are dramatic. Observers suggest that if the trends are not reversed, there is a danger of creating a “lost generation”. This has huge consequences for society, such as reduced levels of security and increased conflict, which in turn will create a destabilized economic, social and political context. The news from Venezuela dominates the front pages and it takes little to imagine what would happen if Latin America were to follow the course of the Middle East.

Plan believes that every young person has the right to fulfill their potential and receive support for their transition into work that affords them dignity, security and a path out of poverty. With this in mind, Plan El Salvador developed a Youth Economic Empowerment (YEE) programme for disadvantaged youth, especially girls. It operates in rural communities and works in close coordination with national and local governments.  It offers life skills and pre-employment screening, combined with training and job placement.

Plan works with the corporate sector to ensure that vocational training is linked to market demand. To support more entrepreneurial youth, a local organization provides business training and support for enterprise development and local finance institutions offer access to financial services.  And finally, we follow up, with youth and employers, to ensure that young people stay in their jobs and that our interventions continuously improve.

While the El Salvador project is generating promising results, challenges remain. Innovative solutions are needed that will break the cycle of youth unemployment and poverty. The problem is too large and complex for any one organization to fix. This is why Plan has started to explore how to bring together a variety of actors from governments, private sector and civil society to determine what works and which solutions can be scaled to purpose.

As we all know, alone you go faster but together you get further.

Meanwhile, Plan is encouraging governments to make commitments at the national level to:

  1. Make quality education accessible for all and ensure that core competencies and life skills are included
  2. Ensure that state-supported vocational job training is linked with the private sector and based on labour-market demand, as this improves job placement
  3. Create a supportive environment for business development and promote business initiatives that create jobs for young people – in particular, young women
  4. Listen to young people; strengthen social dialogue mechanisms to ensure that they have input on decisions that affect their lives

We must not fail Sonja and her friends, the current generation of young people in Latin America.  Government agencies, private-sector companies and civil-society organizations such as Plan International can and must work together to find new solutions and harness the creativity and innovation of the younger generation.

Author: Tjipke Bergsma is deputy CEO of Plan International

Image: Roberto Hurtado, who is unable to find a job in his profession as an automotive mechanic, sells snacks in the central avenue of San Jose January 27, 2014. REUTERS/Juan Carlos Ulate