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#PositiveImpact: bridging the gap from education to employment in El Salvador

Our #PositiveImpact blog explores emerging themes in the design and delivery of Positive Impact. In the run up to the Positive Impact Summit in March, we’ve invited speakers and friends to share reflections on the intentional creation of enduring social and economic value. This month Anthony Carrigan, Palladium’s Summit Director, investigates how partnerships between businesses, service providers and the government in El Salvador helped transform the country’s workforce development sector. These partnerships are systemic solutions that create economic and social value for all involved stakeholders, while addressing failures in the labor market.

Workforce development issues in El Salvador see many young people struggling to find meaningful work.

Workforce development in El Salvador: the need for new solutions
The workforce situation in El Salvador is typical of many countries around the world – on the one hand young people struggling to find meaningful work and on the other businesses complaining that their growth and competitiveness is constrained by the difficulty and cost of finding people with the right skills and competencies.

In El Salvador this problem contributes to a particularly vicious circle – low skills are considered a major constraint to competitiveness and productivity growth, resulting in low investment and growth rates. This contributes to both migration (2 million people of Salvadoran descent in the US compared to a population of 6.4 million) and among the highest levels of violence in the world. Formal jobs have expanded at a rate of 1.1% per year over the past decade (lower than labour force growth). Most migrants are also in the informal or shadow economy in the US at the lowest skill levels.

Both employers and labour force participants face two major hurdles:
1) Bridging the gap from school to employment.
2) Continuous improvement in skills and competencies needed to improve productivity, competitiveness and wages.

How can young people be motivated to acquire the skills, competencies and confidence they need to make themselves more employable? How can employers collaborate with service providers to improve the quality of human capital while reducing their recruiting, training, and turnover costs?

Access for Employment: a program for Positive Impact
In response to these issues, from 2009 to 2013 Palladium designed and implemented the USAID-funded Access to Employment program in El Salvador. In this context, finding solutions to this systemic problem require all stakeholders to recognise the value of market-based opportunities that would benefit themselves, as well as others. A critical ingredient of success was the galvanising of skills service providers with entrepreneurial zeal. These organisations developed innovative and commercially sustainable services linking the demand and supply sides of the labour market, thereby creating economic and social value for all. By demonstrating the potential of these opportunities, stakeholders across the private sector were motivated to try new types of capacity building initiatives.

To tackle workforce development issues, Palladium designed and implemented the USAID-funded Access to Employment program in El Salvador.

The Access to Employment program incubated a range of partnerships with private companies, non-governmental organizations and government to address different gaps in the workforce development system.

Transformative partnerships
There were three notable partnerships that helped bridged the gap from school (or unemployment) to employment:

  • A model for collaborating with employers to prepare and place at-risk youth – Jovenes Comprometidos – Youth with Commitment. This initiative focused on vulnerable, disconnected youth – referred to as “Ni- ni” in El Salvador, meaning that they neither work nor study. Without adequate training, many of these youth perceived formal employment as a hopeless goal. In order to increase training opportunities, partnership agreements were signed with companies such as Walmart, American Franchising Corporation (owns and operates well known franchises in Central America), Hilton, Claro (part of America Movil a Mexican telecoms group), Pollo Campero (a food franchise chain) and others. Working with employers to identify the basic competencies required for success on the job, the program developed training programs incorporating those competencies as well as critical “soft skills” for success in interviews and in the workplace. Training opportunities were linked directly to job vacancies.
  • A partnership with a leading recruiting firm, SEARCH, to set up an online portal and services structure to help students make the difficult transition from school to work. The owners of SEARCH, three women with a passion for social impact as well as profit, quickly saw an opportunity to create the JOVEN360 (Youth 360) online platform which they called an “Ecosystem of Opportunities” and a “Meeting Place for Youth and Opportunities”. The name for the platform came from insights into how young people could better assess and market their full range of skills and qualities. The platform provided tools for developing a complete 360 profile by going through 10 steps to consider and capture different experiences, competencies, leadership roles, volunteer activities, and interests.
  • English for Work partnerships with government and businesses, to deliver workforce English language training. Several of the more dynamic business clusters in El Salvador, as well as the government’s investment promotion agency (PROESA), indicated that English language skills were one of the most important competencies that would enhance the employability of individuals. Discussions with different groups of businesses revealed, however, that English appropriate for a professional environment (English for Work) for work was not the same as the more basic conversational English already being taught. Furthermore, certain industries had specific English language requirements. This led to a number of partnership initiatives to develop new curricula and customised training modules for different industries. These partnerships also sought to strengthen teaching capacity, contributing to greater employability and business growth. Active private sector partners included Aeroman, an aircraft maintenance company who provided English language training modules to employees, and the El Salvadorian government working with business-sponsored foundation FEPADE, who developed English for Work training curricula.

Creating Positive Impact for youth and business
As in many countries, the education and workforce development system is at risk of failing to provide the skills and competencies required by employers. This can have a negative impact on employability, industry competitiveness and the rate of economic growth. In El Salvador, the Access for Employment program incubated partnerships and successfully demonstrated ways in which business, service providers and government could work together on solutions to bridge these gaps.

With the right Positive Impact partnerships in place, real and lasting solutions to seemingly intractable problems can be found.

For more on Palladium’s Positive Impact work follow us on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and at #PositiveImpact. To register for the Positive Impact Summit and learn more about case studies like this one, visit the event page.



About the author

#PositiveImpact January contributor: Anthony Carrigan is the Director of the 2017 Positive Impact Summit.

Anthony (AJ) has spent the past ten years running projects and directing operations for Palladium. AJ joined Palladium after ten years working as a change agent with federal and state governments in Australia conducting privatization, outsourcing, and major procurement programs. After his tenure as Director of Operations for Palladium's US business, AJ is applying his skills, experience, and knowledge to lead the Global Training and Events business of Palladium. AJ is focused in building on ideas, trainings, and event opportunities to showcase even further the tremendous wealth of intellectual property generated by Palladium. AJ is a graduate of Queensland University of Technology.