The missing link: Transforming vocational skills into employment for young women

Youth Skills

The missing link: Transforming vocational skills into employment for young women

It may require more than vocational training programs to create secure employment opportunities for girls. Photo: Vassiliki Lembesis for Mercy Corps.

Faced with a widening gender gap in unemployment, international and nonprofit organizations are providing young women with marketable skills through vocational training programs. But when the girls' skills don't transform into jobs, many wonder - what’s the missing link?

The worldwide financial and economic crisis destroyed 13 million jobs held by women in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization. With the future looking equally dire, organizations hope to reverse the trend by designing vocational skills program targeted specifically toward young women.

Girls encounter extraordinary obstacles due to limited access to education, skills training, and financial resources that prove necessary to obtain greater economic opportunities. On top of that, insufficient policies often fail to protect women from discrimination, both in and outside of the workplace.  

And programs that fail to recognize the extent of barriers faced by such a marginalized population will only be met with poor outcomes and wasted resources.

The World Bank’s New Work Opportunities for Women program is a perfect example of misguided effort. The program provided vocational training to more than 300 young female community college graduates in Jordan. Upon completion, they granted the women job vouchers which were expected to create short-term incentives for firms to hire the recent graduates. Each voucher provided the participant’s employer with a monthly stipend (210 USD) for up to 6 months of an agreed upon employment contract and salary. Unfortunately, these incentives proved to be severely short term and, as the Guardian reports, employment rates for program participants plummeted just four months after the program’s end.

Another program, launched by Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation and called Shaping the Health of Adolescents in Zimbabwe (SHAZ!), proposed a combination of life-skills and business training. It also offered microcredit loans to help young women start their own businesses. Most of the participants were aged 16-19, and used their loans to begin buying and selling goods between towns and remote areas. Lacking safe accommodations and social support, girls were vulnerable to theft, threats to personal safety, and harassment by men. Not only did the end results fall short of expectations, with poor participation and very limited loan repayment, but the foundation also recorded a rise in the physical harm and sexual abuse among young female participants.

Surely these programs have not entirely failed. Many participants said they felt more confident and connected to their communities after gaining skills and employment experience. A young women enrolled in the World Bank’s program states, “I felt happiness that can’t be described, a feeling of belonging to the community, of taking and giving back knowledge, of qualification…of value as irreplaceable.”

But the struggle still remains. How do organizations make sure that vocational programs are both tailored to the immediate needs of their participants and have the ability to promote economic opportunity after the program’s end?

The Adolescent Girls’ Advocacy and Leadership Initiative (AGALI) published a report this year outlining strategies for economic empowerment among young women. Using three main approaches – employment, financial, and life skills and social support strategies     AGALI proposes several recommendations to help improve the design, monitoring and evaluation of vocational training programs:

· Create age appropriate financial services that emphasize financial literacy and youth savings programs.
· Link employment programs to real market needs and opportunities by building girls’ technical and soft skills while enlisting the commitment of employers to hire program participants.
· Address the intersection of factors that shape girls lives by combining life-skills training with social support.
· Create data-driven programs that prioritize monitoring and evaluation and address potential weaknesses or unintended consequences, both during and after program completion.

Incorporating these recommendations into a program's framework from the get-go could bring employable skills and meaningful careers to young women hoping to support their families. However, Denise Raquel Dunning, professor of women’s health and empowerment at University of California-San Francisco, warns that governments must do more. “Economic empowerment initiatives will only succeed with supportive legal and policy environments that advance girls' rights and protect them from discrimination and exploitation in the workplace.”

Without this vital component, the struggle to create economic opportunity for a growing number of adolescent girls is destined to continue.

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