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Global Internship Program Combats Youth Unemployment


The Alcoa Foundation, in partnership with the Institute of International Education, is contributing $1.25 million to a paid youth-internship program in order to combat youth unemployment around the world. This particular international challenge is serious and daunting, and the Alcoa Foundation is taking a unique step to address it.

But first let's go back a bit to explore the problem on a smaller scale. In 2011, even with the state of Michigan still reeling from years of double-digit unemployment, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. cited 77,000 jobs that Michigan employers struggled to fill -- despite the desperately high unemployment in the state. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder even went so far as to suggest importing talent from other nations to fill these positions. The issue persists.

The problem, it seems, is a mismatch between the skills of the unemployed and the skills employers need.

It's not just a challenge in Michigan. It's happening worldwide. More worrying is that it manifests acutely among the world's youth, the next wave of the workforce. The International Labor Organization estimates that 73 million young people are unemployed globally, despite unfilled positions and a demand for skilled workers.

The ILO has warned of a “scarred” generation of young workers facing a dangerous mix of high unemployment, increased inactivity and precarious work in developed countries...

Sixteen to 24 are the prime years when people would receive the training and experience to become productive, well-established citizens for most of their lives. The tragedy is: Young people are missing that window in alarming numbers in many communities, even in developed nations.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are having difficulty meeting their own demand for skilled labor.

This is where the Alcoa Foundation's program comes into play. The $1.25 million program, dubbed Global Internship Program for Unemployed Youth, seeks to bring youth up to speed on workforce skills and introduce them to an industry that desperately needs them. The program funds two training and internship cycles over two years.

"This isn't just about getting these kids a job," says Scott Hudson, principal manager of social responsibility and community outreach for the Alcoa Foundation. "It's about giving them a leg up with real workforce skills. And maybe they'll move on to study engineering or computer-aided design later."

The program establishes workforce readiness training and paid internships with local manufacturers for more than 500 unemployed youth, people 18-24. The selected communities are in eight nations: Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Russia, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Unemployment among youth in the selected regions is in the double digits, generally landing between 18 percent and 24 percent. In the Galicia region of Spain, it's at a staggering 54 percent. These numbers don't even reflect the underemployment rates.

The Global Internship Program for Unemployed Youth identified a nonprofit organization in each focus community. Each organization has the capability to recruit, train, oversee and place young folks in an internship where they will learn real-world skills at a small- to medium-sized manufacturing facility. The manufacturers win because they get an extra set of hands for free and an organization helping with training and oversight. The recruits are paid a decent wage through Alcoa Foundation funds and get real-world experience and learn workforce skills.

So, what's stopping these young people from getting work experience in the manufacturing sector without such a program?

One problem is that young people don't often think of manufacturing as an option for them. Says Hudson, "Manufacturing faces two challenges: It has an image problem where people think of it as dirty and dangerous work, when these days it's really high-tech work. And that's the second challenge: It requires a skilled workforce with more training. We want to shed a different light on manufacturing, so young people consider it as a career option and pursue the right education and training."

This image problem appears to be particularly true among young women. Recruiters for the Alcoa Foundation's internship program are trying to reach out to an equal number of young women, with modest recruitment success at best. Changing that disparity will take more work.

It's also important to recognize the number of challenges facing people who live in underprivileged communities. For example, a person may not have access to reliable transportation or a phone. He or she may have child care needs. Expectations, or "soft skills," that may seem obvious to people who have been in the workforce for a long time aren't always obvious. These expectations are things like showing up to work exactly on time, dressing appropriately and using appropriate workplace communication skills. These are issues and training subjects the program's nonprofit organizations prepare for and train for.

Some recruits are asked to maintain a blog to discuss their progress. One entry from an intern named Ryan at a job in Bellingham, Washington, makes clear just how critical it is to learn "soft skills"

"For me the things that you would not think of are probably the most important -- for example shop etiquette," Ryan writes in his blog post. "All the little things like making sure your pants are pulled up, respecting people's sense of space ... I also learned that working under deadlines affects peoples lives and not to mention their temper.
Impact stories are posted to the Global Internship Program for Unemployed Youth website, showing case studies of recruits who have gone through the program. Video testimonies from Australian youth paint a poignant picture of the internship in their own words:
"I haven't worked for about four or five years now so it's really hard. My mother's really sick at the moment so I was taking care of her a lot and I didn't really have time for a job or school or anything..."

"...I feel a lot better with myself, now."

"...Probably the biggest skill I've learned is punctuality is the biggest. Having to get up at six o'clock every morning and be here at seven o'clock on the dot...Coming here was a big step up. I'm kind of proud of myself for that...It's made me want to progress in life and get somewhere..."

 Image credit: Photos courtesy of the Alcoa Foundation Global Youth Internship Program. 

Eric Justian headshotEric Justian

Eric Justian is a professional writer living near the natural sugar sand beaches and singing sand dunes of Lake Michigan in Muskegon, Michigan. When he's not wrangling his kids or tapping at his computer, he likes to putter in his garden, catch king salmon from the Big Lake, or go pan fishing with his boys. As a successful blogger his main focus has been energy, Great Lakes issues and local food. Eric is a founding member of the West Michgian Jobs Group, a non-profit organization that evolved from a Facebook page called Yest to West Michigan Wind Power which now has over 8000 followers. West Michigan Jobs Group promotes independent businesses and sustainable industries in the West Michigan area. As the Executive Director of that organization he has advocated renewable energy as both a clean energy alternative for Michigan and a new industry with which to diversify our economy and spark Michigan innovation and jobs.

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