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South Asia is facing an 'employment crisis': UNICEF chief

November 5, 2019

Millions of young people are entering South Asia's labor force every year, but many of them lack the skills needed for employment. UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore spoke to DW about the huge challenges facing the region.

Workers at a textile factory in India
Image: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

South Asia has one of the largest youth labor forces in the world, with almost half of the region's population of approximately 1.8 billion people below the age of 24. Yet, many of them lack the education and skills needed to find well-paying jobs.     

According to a study conducted by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), about 54% of the youth in the region leave school without the necessary skills.

If the problem is ignored, it would have a devastating impact on the region's economy and society, warned UNICEF chief Henrietta Fore in an interview with DW.

DW: UNICEF estimates that some 100,000 South Asians enter the labor force every day and almost half of them lack the skills needed to find jobs. What's your take on the current state of affairs?

Henrietta Fore: The number is absolutely astounding. South Asia is facing an employment crisis. In our recent survey, we found out that 54% of the youth in the region do not have the skills they need for gainful employment. 

This means South Asian countries will experience slower GDP growth, and many women and men will not have a chance to contribute economically. We need to try to change that, and work with public and private institutions to improve the level of education and skills of the young people. 

Finding well-paying jobs for these people is the biggest challenge facing the region's policymakers. But that requires an overhaul of the education system, including schools, where many of the children are not learning the skills they need for their future.

If we don't take proper action to resolve this problem, we will be failing this generation.

Fore: 'Finding well-paying jobs for these people is the biggest challenge facing the region's policymakers'
Fore: 'Finding well-paying jobs for these people is the biggest challenge facing the region's policymakers'Image: DW/M. Krishnan

The Indian government has launched an initiative to train and upskill over 400 million people. How do you view this project?

Both Skill India and Startup India are good initiatives. But they are just a beginning. India is on the right track by trying to reform its education system and lay emphasis on imparting skills.

Young people are facing a lot of anxiety and disappointment, particularly when it comes to what they're learning in school. We need to change that. Many of them also face problems with job search. So we need to reach every young person and help them with career counseling and finding jobs.

What would governments in South Asia need to do to prepare their youth for the labor market?

Millions of young people are entering the region's workforce every year. In India alone, one million jobs have to be created every month to absorb them into the labor market. That's a huge challenge for the Indian government.  

If we can provide them with good education and skills, it will really help.

Governments should focus on early childhood education. The brain and body develop rapidly when children are under the age of five, and their learning during this time sets them up for the future. If that can be sustained through primary and secondary school and proper skills are imparted, they will become productive members of society.

What would happen if governments don't pay enough attention to this problem?

If it's ignored, productivity and economic growth in this part of the world will plummet. If only half of the young population have the skills needed to work, that means only half of a nation's youth are becoming contributing and productive members of society. One cannot have an economically well-off society, if half of the population lack the ability to read, write and do maths. It will have negative consequences for society and the economy.

Henrietta Fore is the executive director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The interview was conducted by Murali Krishnan in Mumbai. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Pakistani girls risk their lives for education

Murali Krishnan
Murali Krishnan Journalist based in New Delhi, focusing on Indian politics, society and business@mkrish11