Rodrigo Kon, Executive Director and Francisco Ruiz, Director, Forge Foundation

Historically, Latin America and the Caribbean region exclude their youth from the labour market, particularly those living in vulnerable circumstances. This is a deficit, a serious one, with significant issues regarding ethical, social, economic, and political implications.

In general, Latin American education systems do not seem to fulfil one of their primary purposes: preparing youth for the transition to adult life and labour inclusion. One of the main causes of this inattention seems to be the disconnection between training approaches and the labour market’s needs, as several studies have shown. The working world’s vertiginous transformation anticipates the increasing difficulty of synchronizing skill development in the school system with the demand for skills in the jobs of the future.

The poverty levels affecting a large part of the youth population in our countries tend to weaken their social capital, reducing access to personal development opportunities, increasing inequality, and contributing to youth labour exclusion.

On the other hand, the technological revolution is transforming how we live, learn, and work. These changes have accelerated with the pandemic, testing people’s resilience, flexibility, adaptation to change, ability to learn, autonomy, and ability to perform teamwork and different tasks in a digital environment.

The development of 21st-century skills will remain the differentiating factor in the labour market, now and for the future. Youth from vulnerable environments are at a disadvantage due to less exposure to the development of these skills. For them, the digital transformation could have two faces: on the one hand, facilitating the employment of those with access to the development of these necessary skills, and on the other, deepening the inequality gap for youth who lack such access. At Forge Foundation, we work in favour of the most excluded young people.

We focus on the transition

In the transition to adult life, a youth experiences significant changes in the personal, educational, social, family, and work context. The direction that life begins to take after these changes define the personal trajectory, and with this, their life project.

The first job is maybe one of the most relevant milestones at this stage. As the School-to-Work Transition Survey developed by the ILO shows, the characteristics of the first job experience are correlated with the career path features.

From an experiential perspective, many of us will remember the complexity of this stage of life, where we needed to start making decisions without enough tools, experience, and confidence. In this context, we “borrow” the knowledge and experience of our family and social environment. When this environment is mixed with poverty, due to the lack of material and immaterial resources, the possibility of support is limited, which places youth at a disadvantage and exclusion course.

Forge Foundation is a non-profit organization created in 2005 to facilitate access to quality employment for youth from low-income contexts in Latin America through a system of training, coaching, and work. We focus efforts on this crucial stage in each youth’s life and their transition to adulthood to strengthen their first steps. This focus allows us to multiply the effectiveness of the effort that we develop to positively impact the labour insertion and youths’ life paths in the future.

Our main program, “Your Future,” invites low-income youth between 17 and 24 years old from the main urban centres of Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay. During three semesters, the participants share a process of training, coaching, and job placement (or empowerment for them to reach higher studies) with no cost for them.

Our methodology seeks to influence some relevant factors positively. First, we aim to enhance youth cultural capital, offering training in 21st-century skills: socio-emotional and digital skills. Second, we seek to strengthen their social capital, usually depressed in poverty contexts, providing youth with contact networks integrated by professionals from companies that actively participate in this training process and facilitate access to job opportunities. Simultaneously, the close bond developed with peers allows them to build a support network that lasts for years. Third, we create a personal bond of trust, where each youth has the support of an adult professional specialist, who acts as a significant reference through training, coaching, and counselling. Finally, all of the above unfolds in a respectful and inclusive context that recognizes each youth’s uniqueness, strengthen his/her confidence and sense of self-efficacy, foster a growth mindset, and favour the construction of his/her own life plan and his/her commitment to the community to which he/she belongs.

Our path

Historically, our methodology was carried out in person. Participants attended our 16 training centres throughout the region. Following this modality, we expanded our work to 5 countries in a relatively short period and managed to train almost 10,000 youth per year in the region directly. However, according to the ILO 2020, in Latin America, there is more than 100 million youth, and at least half of them are unemployed or in precarious employment.

The magnitude of this challenge mobilized us to look for ways to scale our scope. A key ally in this regard has been IDB Lab. With its support, we have strengthened our institutional capacity to scale. In this context, we took the first steps toward digitalizing the form and substance of our program. We created a management system that allows us to monitor in real-time the implementation of our training proposal and the effectiveness of critical indicators and keep a traceable record of the complete process of a youth who participates in our program. Simultaneously, collaborative work with the IDB Lab has allowed us to develop mobile and web applications that facilitate the teaching and learning process. Another significant aspect of this collaboration has been the development of a methodological transfer kit. This electronic platform systematizes the “know-how” of our organization with the idea of making it easier for other organizations to have access to it and implement our program by acting as multiplying agents for our reach. Due to this collaborative work with IDB, since 2019, together with more than 20 other public and private organizations, we have formed part of a coalition that seeks to promote 21st-century skills in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Digital acceleration: our 100% online experience

2020 marked a turning point in our journey. The pandemic dramatically deepened the youth unemployment problem, intensifying the urgency of our purpose. At the same time, commuting restrictions that most of our countries had to face led us to accelerate the digitization plan we were already working on, guided by a principle: Despite the difficulties, we could not abandon the cause at such a critical moment. In this way, in July, we launched a 100% online program, “Your Future,” simultaneously in five countries of the region.

The tools that we chose for the implementation had to meet three accessibility criteria considering our youth’s profile: free availability, the capability of using simple hardware and generating low consumption in internet plans. In short, we implemented our program remotely, reaching 9,801 youths in Latin America.

Preliminary data from the external evaluation of this experience showed promising results compared to previous program versions. First, despite the Internet and hardware requirement, the beneficiaries’ socioeconomic profile compared to the face-to-face version of prior years remained almost identical. Second, the level of permanence (youth starting vs youth finishing the training program) had only a slight decrease, reaching 74% vs 81% in 2019. Third, counterintuitively, youth and facilitators perceived that the online program produced bonds of trust and meaningful learning similar to in-person versions despite the intervention of technological tools. As some students and facilitators said, Forge, in 2020, managed to “breakthrough” the screen.

Next steps

Whit the idea of further scaling, we are currently implementing “Your Perspective Transforms,” a teacher training program that allows us to transfer an essential part of our methodology to teaching teams of the region’s publicly funded schools. Following an asynchronous and assisted online modality, the proposal seeks to enhance teachers’ 21st-century skills to later incorporate into their pedagogical practices and enhance their students’ development of such skills. The proposal also has a web-based community of practice. Piloting this experience in 2020 allowed us to train 1,477 teachers.

There is still a long way to systematize the lessons learned from this online experience accelerated by the pandemic. We have decided to continue exploring ways to positively affect youths’ social-emotional and digital skills through technological means. We know that the path where this decision leads will not be obstacle-free, but we are determined to walk it, looking for better ways to build bridges of opportunity for many more youth.

About Rodrigo Kon

Rodrigo Kon is currently the Executive Director of the Forge Foundation. He leads the teams of the organization that work in 5 Latin American countries, offering training and support for the labour insertion of youths with limited economic resources. Under his direction, the Forge Foundation has developed an innovative scaling plan. He graduated in Anthropological Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires and got a Postgraduate Degree in Non-Profit Organizations. His career combined teaching with the Design and Management of Social Organizations and Programs especially aimed at youths in vulnerable situations. In the last 20 years, he has held management positions in civil society organizations and programs promoted by multilateral organizations in several Latin American countries. He has worked mainly in programs carried out in: Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic and Mexico

About Francisco Ruiz

Francisco Ruiz is the Director of the Forge Foundation Chile. He has been in charge of the opening and consolidation of the institutional project in the country, leading alliances with the private and public sectors. Besides, he collaborates with the knowledge management of Forge at the regional level. He moved away from his legal profession to dedicate himself to the management of social and public policies. He got his Master’s degree in Public Management and Governance from the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK. He has worked as an advisor for the Government of Chile on employment policies. He has also been executive director and member of the board of directors of different civil society organizations in the field of education and employment. He is the co-founder of an important Chilean social organization.

Quote from a youth participating in Forge’s “Your Future”

“We take with us skills for the job. For Forge, the key is to work at a psychological level so for us to have the confidence to face a job. That is why we all loved the self-knowledge part; it marked a before and after in all of us. Starting there is the key. There, we are different persons, and we see life from another perspective. Considering that we all agree, I would say that Forge gives you the key from your personal growth.”

 “I once missed a Zoom class, and after a while, they were sending me text messages. You feel that they are accompanying you. I felt like… ‘Wow, they are just waiting for me.’ And it was nice. It motivated me to avoid missing more classes. You say: if I miss it, they will not notice. But actually, they do.”

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