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11 Jul 2012

Training the Poor in Times of Unemployment

By Claudio de Moura Castro.

Amongst respected researchers, there is ample consensus that training does not create jobs. Therefore, if in a given environment, jobs are not being created, there are perplexing issues concerning what to do with existing training systems and what to offer to those who are not finding good jobs.

The best general advice one can give about training is the harsh rule: “no demand, no training”. If we prepare students for an occupation and the jobs are not there, something is wrong. Offering training under those conditions only leads to waste and frustration. What is the point of spending significant amounts of money to prepare people for jobs that do not exist? It is a poor expenditure of public money and disappoints those who build up expectation and just end up as unemployed – or underemployed as before.

When we look at the reality of poorer countries, it seems clear that good training is too expensive as a gimmick to remove youth from the streets during the training process, if it fails to help them to get jobs. There must be better uses for the resources.

However, does it mean that we should close down training programs and ignore the potential candidates for training, especially when they are poor, need jobs and cannot find them?

Below we suggest some promising lines to help break the dismal predicament of “no demand, no training”:

Squeeze the job market and target the poor: The “Joven” [Youth] Projects

Starting with Chile and followed by Argentina and other countries, the IDB funded a number of programs in which training was outsourced to any operator who could present a decent training program to the unemployed and a written promise of a job or an internship to those who graduated. Evaluations showed that the program gave a chance to thousands of small (sometimes improvised) training operators to roam the country in search of firms that would take their students. And this effort paid off because they found many dormant opportunities.

Teaching basic skills woven into practical instruction

Many low level workers know how to use their hands, but not their brains. Creative programs can use the contextualized environment of real job to teach basic cognitive skills. There are many successful examples of integration of job skills with basic skills in large corporations and the armed forces.

Typically, painters are taught the mathematics of calculating how many cans of paint they will need to paint a room. Carpenters are taught how to read blueprints or to prepare written reports. Plumbers can be taught accounting or costs. Repairmen can be taught how to read instruction or service manuals.

Academic schools offering “practical” education

In times of unemployment, keeping youth in school for a longer time can be a good idea. Education is less perishable than training. Training that is not put to good use right away risks being lost forever. By contrast, education being far more “generic”, can be expected to have a longer shelf-life. In addition, compared to serious training, school are inexpensive and they are everywhere.

Notwithstanding, we need to understand some basic facts about schools. We should not confuse the necessary interplay of theory and practice with the possibly, useful but not necessary interplay between theory and job-oriented subjects. Academic subjects do not have to be linked to vocational preparation in order to be effective. But in those cases, it is imperative that they be as applied to the real world and to practical activities as it is done in serious vocational schools. There ought to be practical applications, explorations of the real world, experimentation and student research. These activities are meant to educate the mind via experiments and construction of real objects and processes – by contrast to the shops meant to teach a trade.

A good education blends theory and practice. Practice gives meaning and concreteness to theory and allows for a deeper understanding of concepts. There is no need to train for a given occupation to make education concrete.

Why do schools have be so boring and removed from the everyday life of students? Why can’t the curricula of such schools be shorter, simpler and more focused on those academic skills that can be translated into practical skills? Notice that we are not at all suggesting that the schools teach “practical” skills or occupations. Our proposal is a far cry from teaching students how to grow cabbage in the school backyard because this is “useful” knowledge for the poor. As previously emphasized, we are stressing the practical side of the same academic skills (e.g. learning to use mathematics to deal with everyday problems).

Training for self-employment

Much has been written and done about the potential of training programs to prepare youth for self-employment. This is not the place to review such experiments and their results. However, it is worth mentioning as a serious alternative to train poor youth.

Claudio de Moura Castro, Positivo, Belo Horizonte, Brazil. Email:

This piece first appeared in NORRAG NEWS Towards a New Global World of Skills Development? TVET’s turn to Make its Mark, No.46, September 2011, pp. 35-37.

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