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Our June 20 Salon in New York City tackled the topic of digital jobs for African youth. Lead discussants were Lauren Dawes, who leads the GSMA’s Mobiles for Employment team, and Lillian Chege from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa program. The GSMA will release a study on Mobiles for Work in July, and Rockefeller has recently announced a 7-year, multi-million dollar commitment to creating digital jobs in six African countries.

The wealth of experience in the room led to lively discussions and debates around roles and responsibilities in this area. The stagnant global economy is a major underlying problem when it comes to youth employment, and jobs cannot be created out of thin air. Salon participants shared how they are trying to work around this by identifying areas with potential for youth, preparing youth for these opportunities, and seeking to match youth skills with private sector demand. Alternatively, some Salon participants focus on helping youth enter into different forms of entrepreneurship.

What do youth want?

When surveyed for a previous GSMA study on Mobile Learning, young people indicated more interest in using mobile devices for finding a job than for learning math or English. Most youth prioritized work skills to get jobs. So the GSMA conducted a second study (forthcoming) with youth in Spain, Ghana, Indonesia and Bangladesh to identify where mobile devices could help with youth employment. The study’s preliminary findings indicate that youth want support for learning and training; finding a job (connecting to employers, knowing what to say to them, understanding the process of getting a job); and obtaining skills and capital to start their own businesses. Surveyed youth identified interest in manufacturing, catering, teaching, and the ICT and mobile sectors, including sales, selling mobile phones and mobile accessories, and jobs in the mobile industry.

Do youth have a sense of what is possible?

Listening to youth is very valuable, but some Salon participants felt that youth might only be aware of what they see around them. How can we help youth discover new areas and expand their horizons, they asked. Might there be jobs and possibilities that youth are well suited for but do not know about? The fall back position of “start my own business” is another example of what  youth see around them in poor economies where there are no formal jobs. Youth’s ideas will likely be very experience-based. One Salon participant told of an innovation contest, where youth in Kenya submitted new and creative ideas, whereas those from some other countries submitted ideas that closely mirrored NGO programs commonly seen in their communities. Stimulating youth to think bigger and exposing them to new opportunities and ideas is an important part of youth development and youth employment programs.

Soft skills for formal jobs

As the GSMA study noted, a big challenge for youth is understanding the job seeking process and gaining the skills needed to find a job, communicate with employers, and then keep a job. Many youth do not know how to manage an interview, or how to retain connections. Placing someone who has never experienced a formal setting into a formal job, even at an entry-level, creates a whole set of issues. In some cases these may be more basic, like personal hygiene, arriving to work on time, or simply knowing how to navigate a formal work environment. New kinds of hierarchies may need to be learned. For example, in some contexts males have never had to work with or report to females. On top of these situations, there may be additional, deeper challenges. In one employment program, a Salon participant noted, 8 of the 10 girls recruited were survivors of rape. Once youth land a job, an entire family is relying on them and their income, and this generates a great deal of stress. The traditional education system does a very poor job of helping youth gain soft skills, As one participate noted, it still aims to prepare youth for an industrial economy yet today’s world requires completely different skills to succeed.

Skills for entrepreneurship

The state of the economy is such that many youth will not find formal employment and are considering starting their own businesses. In the GSMA study, youth identified a desire for capital and support in this area. A Salon participant outlined 3 kinds of entrepreneurship: high impact/high growth (Silicon valley style); lifestyle entrepreneurship (small and medium enterprises, family businesses); survival entrepreneurship (low-skilled, informal businesses). Each of these is quite different, and adequate risk analysis and targeted support and skills training need to be developed for each according to the context. Most youth in developing countries will not work in Silicon Valley. They will instead need to develop skills for lifestyle and survival entrepreneurship. Soft skills as well as technical know-how are critical for entrepreneurship, and many investments are unsuccessful because these skills are not strong among youth. Generational gaps also make it difficult for older people to mentor younger people, because things are moving from print to digital and relationships are also changing. Innovation hubs are aiming to fill this gap and provide youth with a relevant space to learn the hard and soft skills required for high impact, high growth entrepreneurship in the tech sector.

What about young women?

It was noted that most of the existing innovation hubs are very male-focused. For example, only 16% of the iHub Nairobi’s users are female. More needs to be done to bring women into these spaces, yet it can be challenging in many contexts where girls do not complete secondary school. Female role models and mentors are scarce in these new fields and in leadership positions within companies. Mentorship is key for young women, who tend to doubt themselves, to be apologetic about their ideas, and who are often shy about speaking up. Some organizations are using Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook, and Twitter chats to reach and mentor young women. Girls from poorer communities, however, may not have access to these programs and may not see themselves and their personal experiences reflected in female role models from the upper classes. In addition, though mentoring is high touch and very powerful, in its current form it is time-consuming and not feasible for reaching everyone who needs it. The challenge is offering these kinds of support at scale.

The employment ecosystem

Some participants noted that creating one job at a large company can stimulate additional, related jobs (e.g., cleaners, nannies and cooks who serve employees at lunchtime). Others felt that the trickle-down effect is overestimated. An entire ecosystem conducive to youth employment is needed. This is not a simple thing to create, and it takes quite a long time. The role of government in creating the infrastructure for jobs and a digital economy cannot be underestimated. One participant pointed out that both “bottom up” development of the labor market and “top down” development of labor infrastructure and capital are needed. This will vary from country to country, and research should be conducted to understand the right entry points for each context. All these sectors need to work together to match the economic context, the demand, and the supply sides. The private sector cannot create jobs on its own, as one discussant commented. Jobs are created because of consumer demand and need. The private sector can, however, get better at identifying which jobs are on the horizon, and it can work with education, training, and non-profit partners to ensure that youth are prepared for these jobs.

Comprehensive programs are needed

When we train youth for non-existent jobs, we create expectations, said one Salon participant, citing an ILO study that reported 40% of job programs had negative impacts on youth. In addition, programs cannot only look at one side of the issue. Youth employment programs should not be just hard skills, just soft skills, or just mentorship. Rather they need to be comprehensive. The issue of supply-demand balance is rampant across development programs, noted another participant. We train women to go to a clinic, and they go, but there is no midwife. The need for a holistic perspective is something that has been learned the hard way, and this learning needs to transfer into youth employment programs. Impact sourcing is a newer concept where socially responsible businesses are encouraged to hire youth from less privileged communities for lower end jobs, for example, at call centers. The Rockefeller Foundation is working in partnership with the private sector and institutes such as Digital Divide Data to train and place youth in these types of jobs and will expand to sectors outside of the business process outsourcing (BPO) field in their new Digital Jobs Africa program. In some cases, 100% of participating youth have been placed into formal economy jobs. The program is also looking at other high growth sectors (such as agriculture, manufacturing, and the hospitality industry) where digital jobs are growing. The Foundation collaborates with governments to support creation of an enabling environment that will allow these efforts to achieve scale.

Scale and speed are imperative

While scale is one factor, time is the other, according to one participant. Hubs and ground-up entrepreneurship can move the ball down the field, but this will take time. A grand and widespread effort is needed. In part, this can be boosted by identifying and building on existing infrastructure. Libraries can serve as information hubs for job seekers, financial literacy, digital spaces and places to find support for job training and seeking. Telecenters are also playing a role in helping youth access information and build digital and life skills. More needs to be done with schools as well. The need is too great not to scale, said one discussant, it’s imperative! We need to unlock existing funding within government as well. Governments can  be a source of demand, as they also have digital needs and digital jobs. In Kenya, for example, the government is digitalizing the records for the country’s largest hospital, and this is work that youth are doing. As new hospitals are built in rural areas, now they will have access to patient records across the health system. Similar efforts can be found and youth can be trained for these kinds of jobs.

What about rural youth?

While the possibilities are exciting, much of the work is anchored in urban and semi-urban areas, including the digital jobs programs and the innovation hubs. Participants asked whether it is possible to extend services out to rural areas to cast a wider net. The latest “big thing” was also brought up – can Google’s new wifi balloons solve some of the issue with connectivity, and will that be enough to bring some of these benefits to rural populations?

Thanks to our great lead discussants, Lauren and Lillian, and to Melissa Beuoy at FHI-360’s New York City office for graciously hosting us and providing a fantastic breakfast spread!

Don’t miss our July 10 Salon on the realities of ICT access for youth in Indonesia, Sweden, Sierra Leone and Uganda. We’ll be joined by 6 youth who are visiting New York City for a UN Take Over to support girls’ education, in honor of of Malala Yousafzai.

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Salons are in-person only events held in Washington DC, New York, San Francisco, Nairobi and London. We hold to Chatham House Rule, thus no attribution has been made in the above summary post.

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“Google employees get to take 20% of their time to do their own thing,” is a phrase that is often repeated and praised in the circles where I run. I have to agree that it’s a fantastic idea — I’m a big fan of side projects.

Chade-Meng Tan works for Google, and he took his 20% time to work on the idea of bringing ‘mindfulness’ into the workplace. (His long-term goal is the loftier one of world peace–but more about that later.)

Meng’s idea turned into a course for Google employees called “Search Inside Yourself” (pun intended). It was a kind of meditation course for geeks and engineers. His book (by the same title) walks readers through the course, going from very very simple ‘learning how to meditate’ to (my favorite) ‘mindful emailing’ and onto his idea that if we each start by developing peace and happiness within ourselves, we will develop compassion, and if everyone is happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace.

I was skeptical about reading Search Inside Yourself because I’m not big on self-help books or reading about hot business management trends or which ‘7 Habits’ will transform my life. I’m also not super touchy-feely. I did enjoy the book, however. It was a pleasant and easy read, and I’m guessing it rolls the key points of most of those other self-help books into one. (Though I could be mistaken, since I haven’t read any of them!)

Search Inside Yourself is meditation and mindfulness merged with emotional intelligence and research on how the brain works applied to the workplace, relationships and life in general. Throughout the book are quotes and conversations with renowned Buddhists such as Matthieu Ricard, (noted for being ‘the happiest man in the world’), the Dalai LamaRichard Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn (pioneers in the field of contemplative neuroscience), Norman Fischer and Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.

Meng starts us off with very accessible exercises to learn to meditate. (Chapter 1 is titled ‘Even an Engineer Can Thrive on Emotional Intelligence’) Starting with 2 minutes a day, he says, you can get going. (I tried, and even I was actually able to slow myself down for 2 minutes). He moves on to ‘mindful activity,’ and ‘other-directed mindfulness,’ and  ‘mindful conversation’ exercises that help develop non-judgmental listening, empathy and compassion.

Next, he walks us through moving from emotional self-awareness to accurate self-assessment to self-confidence, focusing quite a bit on the concept of ego. Following this, Meng covers ‘self mastery,’ managing pain and stress, and dealing with distress and managing emotions. One quote I particularly liked was by Thich Nhat Hanh:  ‘wilting flowers do not cause suffering; it is the unrealistic desire that flowers not wilt that causes suffering.’ There is a nice section on dealing with emotional triggers and managing negative emotions with calm.

Meng backs up his ideas with neuroscience and behavioral theories, including those of Tony Hsieh who started Zappos Shoes and Daniel Pink who emphasizes that the best way to find motivation at work is to spend most of our time and energy working towards higher purpose rather than short-term pleasure chasing. ‘If we know what we value most and what is most meaningful to us, then we know what we can work on that serves our higher purpose. When that happens, our work can become a source of sustainable happiness for us,’ writes Meng.

I found the parts of the book that talk about empathy to be quite applicable to the work that aid and development agencies (and non-profits in general) do, especially in terms of results, accountability and effectiveness and how development agencies interact with staff and partners at all levels, internally and externally. People often imagine that at non-profits, everyone is there for a good cause, therefore everyone is nice and there are no nasty internal politics or bad management issues or unpleasant interactions with ‘beneficiaries’ and participants or staff. I promise you this is not true – non-profits need to work on this every bit as much as for-profits — and maybe even more since there are usually less resources to go around or to invest in management and staff training in these areas.

One section I really liked was where Meng refers to Patrick Lencioni’s five dysfunctions of  a team: absence of trust, fear of conflict, lack of commitment, avoidance of accountability and inattention to results. The only way to change this, says Meng, is starting off with sincerity, kindness and openness and with 3 assumptions: that everybody in the room is there to serve the greater good until proven otherwise; that no one has any hidden agenda unless proven otherwise; and that we are all reasonable, even when we disagree, until proven otherwise. Also helpful, he says, is ’empathetic listening’ and ‘political awareness,’ eg., the ability to read an organization’s emotional currents and power relationships.

Meng talks about compassionate leadership and offers advice on turning foes into friends and on dealing with difficult conversations and situations, based on David Rock’s SCARF model for the social brain which describes how status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness are major drivers of social behavior. This is where we get our tips on ‘mindful emailing.’

The book closes out with an explanation of how Meng would like to see meditation and mindfulness enter the public sphere in the same way that exercise has. Eg., one day everyone will know that meditation is good for them, anyone will be able to learn how to do it, companies will understand that it is good for business, and meditation will be taken granted: eg, ‘Of course you should mediate…. duh.’

Search Inside Yourself is great example of what can be created when employees have time to think and work on those side projects that add meaning to their lives and value to the greater good. I enjoyed seeing where I’m already being mindful, empathetic and compassionate, analyzing where I could improve, and having some clear and concise instructions on how to get started working on areas that need more effort. Meng has taken an excellent step towards his dream of making these concepts accessible to everyone.

*****

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending over the complimentary copy of Search Inside Yourself for review!

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