Youth unemployment: it's not simply a mismatch of supply and demand

By Lam Le   May 23, 2016 | 07:08 pm PT
Youth unemployment: it's not simply a mismatch of supply and demand
The kites of childhood. Photo by Vo Thi Huynh/VnExpress Photo Contest
“No, no, no! We do not accept disabled people,” was one employer’s response when Mai told them she had a disabled arm.

Disappointed she was, but rejection after rejection could not bust this young woman’s desire to work and be independent. “I didn’t believe this vast country had no job for me,” said Mai.

Vu Thi Mai, a 28 year old woman from Hanoi, was born with one arm shorter than the other with a few fingers missing. As she grew up, Mai had to change jobs frequently, not only because of her health, but also because she wanted a job she could enjoy.

Mai is not alone. Disabled or not, young people have been struggling to find employment. In Q1/2016, nearly half of the 1.12 million unemployed in Vietnam were aged from 15 to 24, according to the General Statistics Office (GSO). Youth unemployment is particularly prevalent in cities, where one in ten young people are jobless.

But there’s more to the story than the commonly quoted job-qualification mismatch.

According to an ILO report released in 2015, a worrying proportion of young people don’t even have the minimum formal qualifications they need to begin with. Indeed, GSO statistics show that Vietnamese workers remain largely unskilled. Only 19.2 percent of the workforce has had vocational training or higher.

Mai is no exception. “Embarrassed” of their daughter’s disability, Mai’s parents did not send her to school. Instead, she learnt at home from her siblings and went on to work at a local shop. Things were going well. Mai was one of the best sales people but she knew she could not go on like that for long. Her health would not allow it.

“But what could I do with no qualifications?” – wondered Mai.

Even those who do have qualifications fail to match employers’ requirements. Over-education impacts 23.5 percent of young workers while under-education impacts 23.8 percent, the ILO report said.

Pham Thi Trinh, 34, is one of them. When she was still in her twenties, despite having a diploma in tourism, she could neither find a job in her hometown of Hung Yen Province (south-east of Hanoi) nor when she moved to Hanoi. On top of that, family problems just made everything worse for the young mother.

Being unemployed despite having qualifications is not news in Vietnam. But for disadvantaged people like Mai and Trinh, the question is not simply “what to study”, it’s first and foremost about access to learning.

So, surprised Mai was when a Vietnamese NGO that provides vocational training for disadvantaged youth, accepted her onto a graphic design course without asking for a single certificate. After all, completing high school is a pre-requisite to enroll in vocational colleges in Vietnam. That leaves those with no formal education like Mai very limited options of what qualifications they can pursue.


Mai at work. Photo by Reach

“I never thought I could ever learn to become a graphic designer,” said Mai.

But yes, she did, but it was not easy.

“In the beginning, I could not study, I was like an empty piece of paper,” said Mai, who had never used a computer before the course.

“I wanted to give up, I cried a lot. I didn’t have a computer at home to practice,” Mai recalled.

Trinh also had to overcome significant barriers to complete her hairdressing course.

“When you’re used to being your own boss, sticking to a timetable is extremely hard. If there’s no one to push you to commit, you’ll most likely drop out after just a few days,” said Trinh.

The struggle didn’t end there. Even though the training was short and free of charge, it cost Trinh in other ways. Time spent learning was time lost making a living, which forced her to exert extra effort to cover night shifts at bars, restaurants or karaoke joints.

“Problems at home didn’t help,” recalled Trinh, whose then husband did not approve of her taking time off work to train.  

But with help and encouragement from the facilitators, both Trinh and Mai managed to graduate from the three month course.

“The facilitators play a very important role in helping disadvantaged youth complete the courses,” said Pham Thi Thanh Tam, a trainer and executive director of Reach, Vietnamese NGO that provides vocational training for disadvantaged youth. “There’s a reason why we don’t use the word trainer. We are not here to merely teach them some skills but to facilitate change, help the trainees overcome their personal problems that have hindered their ability to learn a marketable skill.”

According to Tam, three to four year long formal vocational training programs are too rigid, outdated and unsuitable for those who need them most, the disadvantaged youth.

Instead, she advocates a market driven model whereby the curriculum is flexible enough to meet the ever-changing needs of both employers and trainees.

“The program needs to consider not only the skills that the job market needs but also the starting point of target trainees, their background and age, and their physical, social and financial needs,” said Tam.

Connecting disadvantaged youth to potential employers is also vital. After graduation, Tam recommends former trainees should receive six months of support to increase the chance of them finding a job and sticking to it. 

Hairdressing class at Reach. Photo by Lam Le

Hairdressing class at Reach. Photo by Lam Le

As of 2015, Reach has supported 12 thousand disadvantaged youths, and at least 80 percent of them found suitable employment after completing their courses. Mai and Trinh are two of them.

But the greatest asset both of them got out of the training perhaps was not the hard and soft skills they learnt but self-confidence and dignity.

“Now I have a proper skill. Society needs this profession. I feel confident; I’m a useful member of society,” said Trinh, who now runs her own hair salon she opened using money borrowed from friends and family.

Mai, on the other hand, may look fragile but has the fire of a true fighter. Rejection after rejection due to her disability did nothing to drain this young woman. Today, she takes a bus to work as a graphic designer for a technology company. The last time she applied for jobs, she had three offers.

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