How can the youth become a solution, not a problem?

Speech by Miika Tomi, UNESCO Youth Delegate of Finland, at the plenary session of the Third International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education and Training, Shanghai, 15 May 2012

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“How can the youth become a solution, not a problem?”

Dear ladies and gentlemen,

I am more than delighted to offer you the youth perspective this morning. After all, every policy recommendation, idea and concrete proposal coming out of this congress will have its most wide-ranging and direct and we impact on young people. So it is more than fair to hear what do the youth think. I am not here alone with my ideas, however. I was elected to represent the 7th UNESCO Youth Forum in Paris last fall consisting of 211 delegates coming from 127 different countries. The final report we adopted is the most representative document of the aspirations of the world youth that exists today. I will base my presentation on those recommendations.

I want to leave you with a simple idea today. The obstacle that stands between us and the solution in solving the global youth unemployment is our vision of the youth. It is that exact image that translates into educating and listening the youth in a certain way that has proven ineffective. Global youth unemployment is at its record high and young people everywhere around the world that I meet and talk with feel overly pessimistic about their future.

So how do we see the youth? There is the idealistic image and then there is the reality, but unfortunately there is no connection between the two. The idealistic image is what you see in TV and magazines when the marketing professionals are trying to sell you something. Energetic, innovative, always happy, independent, well behaved. Something I would call a “youth resource”. Then there is the reality. Youth are either a mere passive group that needs to be educated in order to keep the economy rolling or worse, a source for social unrest and instability. This is what is called a “youth burden”. Nobel peace price winner Martti Ahtisaari once said that a young, angry unemployed man is the biggest threat to world peace.

The real difficulty with these images is that they tend to become reality. Psychological studies suggest that the expectations actually have a direct guiding impact on people’s behaviour. When I was chosen as a Vice Chair of Education in the third largest city of Finland five months ago I was asked by a member of the committee in the first meeting whether I was the new high school youth representative? That person had a perception of the youth that I did not fit into. With our negative images of youth we end up wasting a tremendous global potential.

Secondly, this pessimistic vision of young people is also a challenge for our educational systems. This is especially so in terms of TVET. In no other form of schooling is it more true that education is seen as just a tool to transfer relevant knowledge and skills. A Chinese expert estimated in a UNESCO organized EFA-seminar in Beijing last month that in only 20 years the skills learned in vocational schools would become irrelevant in China, due to rapid transformation of the economic system and labour markets.  Why is it that some of the most innovative people who created whole new industries and millions of new jobs quit their studies before finishing them?

We have massive youth unemployment and dim global economic perspectives.  We need sustainable growth and only innovative solutions can take the world there. TVET has a great potential for this, yet it remains unused. The right answers are not enough. It is like a student who never became a good mathematician because he blindly believed in the answers provided at the back of the book. It did not help him that the answers were all correct.

Thirdly, we have not succeeded in listening to young people properly. Very few young people feel that their government is on their side or that they are truly listened to. According to a recent study conducted here in Shanghai, 70% of vocational high school students often feel that they are insignificant and neglected by society; indeed this is very true for most countries. Too often TVET learners especially are regarded as a group that has very little to offer to society. The simple truth is that by providing opportunities and truly listening to youth, governments strengthen social harmony in a most effective way. By not listening its youth the society teaches them to only care for themselves. Never have I heard a young person say, “I have never received any opportunities in my life but I still feel like I want to give back to the society.”

The youth of the world see three ways forward:

1) We start to see youth as experts and give them the required space to grow as citizens

2) We educate youth with life-skills so they can teach themselves

3) We provide incentives and advice for everyone to create their own jobs

Listening to youth means releasing their potential and teaching them new skills. I would like to think of it as youth crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing is a process that involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. Amazing work has been done recently through this method; including entire books, movies, music, art and so on. Not only can you have a much better final results, but the people participating start to care for it as well. They invest in it in all forms; time wise, financially and they talk about it – the best way of marketing. Youth are the experts of their own lives just like you are of yours. This means student led school participation where the adults only have a consultative role, youth-led projects on promoting green societies and building a school surroundings in collaboration with the students.

In my City of Tampere each school has a student council that sends representatives to the city youth Forum meeting that elects their council members. The council is then given 10 000 euros to distribute to the different youth projects that benefit the youth of the entire city. Everyone is free to apply for funding. The council also has representatives in all the relevant city committees in all of their meetings to give a youth perspective. The city employs a full time youth ombudsman who is responsible for promoting youth issues in the city and provides support for the youth forum. This practice was raised in the evaluation process of the European Council as a recommended practice. I am also a product of that system. In U.S.A consultative youth hearings are done regionally and youth experts employed by the government. You all have two UNESCO Youth Delegates in your countries – use their expertise too. Youth play a positive role in transforming the society. Youth are not a problem, they are a solution.

The one who can re-educate herself will be the winner in tomorrow’s labour market. The scope of education should include entrepreneurial skills and training opportunities. Through reforming our schooling system to support innovation and teaching youth to teach themselves, new industries will be created. We heard yesterday from the representative of OECD that employees in companies where they are not challenged and their skills do no therefore develop, are in a disadvantageous position. How about if every employee would learn to challenge themselves?  Maybe it is not the economists that need to create the jobs, but rather everyone: through innovation. The IT-sector is a good example of an industry where a simple idea can create a million new jobs. That is why we need to support intergenerational partnerships particularly in non-traditional fields, such as e-learning.

There are numerous independent online learning tools available nowadays. Khan academy and TED talks are good examples everyone should be familiar with. The most important task of our educational systems should be to spark the interest for self-learning and provide skills for it. We must admit that what schools can offer in the skill-level will not be enough for a lifetime of a modern person. We need to ensure access to quality formal and non-formal education, including informal education, intercultural education, values-based education and civic education, as equal parts of general education.

Incentives and advice will then lastly improve the school to work transitions. Governments should allocate resources to promising fields and offer incentives to the youth so they can develop their expertise. Youth-led initiatives promoting green societies should be especially encouraged. The German dual model is good example for illustrating how important mentoring is. When a young person meets an inspirational expert from her field, she will be better motivated to learn and will develop her skills faster when understanding why they will be relevant.

A special emphasis should be placed on offering support for marginalized youth, women, girls, children with rural and migrational backgrounds, and develop their potential as well. Why not guarantee an internship or additional training for all the youth under 25 if they graduate without a job, like some governments are now doing?

I would like to end with a story. A Sheppard finds a hole from his fence and realizes that all his beloved sheep have fled away. He departs to find them and finds them just in time before being eaten by a big wolf. He brings them home and against all the advise from the others refuses to mend the hole in the fence. As educational experts you are the shepherds. Like with these sheep, in the end it is better to let young people learn by trial and error what is best for them; rather than just fixing the fence. Truly listen to us, even if we are sometimes wrong just like you– and give us real responsibility to find our potential. That is the way to real prosperity.

Thank you, Merci, Xiexie!

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