As part of its digital outreach and engagement, United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) hosts a series of dialogues with scholars, educators, researchers and students to discuss priorities for the future, obstacles to achieving them, and the role of global academic cooperation in addressing global challenges. On 24 June 2021 UNAI hosted the latest webinar in its Digital Dialogues Series entitled “COVID-19 and Youth Employment.”

In celebration of World Youth Skills Day, 15 July, UNAI’s webinar examined the socioeconomic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people, particularly on employment opportunities and students' perceptions of their future career prospects. It looked at reviewing best practices, challenges and potential solutions as well as the role of institutions of higher education in addressing this situation. The speakers focused on the most important current barriers to youth employment.

Mr. Sher Singh Verick, Head of the Employment Strategies Unit in the Employment, Labour Markets and Youth Branch at the International Labour Organization (ILO), began the discussion by drawing upon key points of the recent ILO Report (which can be complemented with this ILO Statistical Brief) on the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, specifically highlighting how youth employment has declined more than other age groups, particularly in middle income countries. Mr. Verick also indicated that young women have been harder hit, and that these factors have led to young people withdrawing from the labor market. He stressed the need to increase the vaccine rollout in middle and low income countries to provide opportunities for economies to restart and for young people to get back to work.

While underlining these points, Mr. Muhammad Shah, Director of National Incubation Centre - Quetta at the Balochistan University of Information Technology, Engineering, and Management Sciences (Pakistan), which is also the UNAI SDG Hub for Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth, turned to the need for solutions to the mounting barriers to employment that youth are experiencing. Mr. Shah talked about the role universities have in fostering entrepreneurship and innovation, so that young people can create their own jobs and not rely on traditional labor markets. These skillsets will also help young people navigate the unpredictable and unfamiliar employment landscape we see today. He drew attention to the type of skills that would matter and that universities should support, such as soft skills and emotional intelligence. 

Despite the challenges derived from the ongoing pandemic, this is not the first crisis in terms of employment, but the second in the past two decades after the 2007 global financial crisis, as pointed out by Ms. Azita Berar, Founder of the Global Network of Policy Research on Youth Transitions, Chair of the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, and Director of Policy at the Global Labour Organization. She emphasized that this crisis was different though, as it was not only impacting employment but also education, and the education to employment transition. Ms. Berar made the point that the need for decent jobs over just employment for young people is crucial. She finished on a positive note, pointing toward the new momentum for addressing policy changes in the future, and the increased presence and collaboration seen between the private and public sector going forward.

Dr. Nader Kabbani, who is the Director of Research at the Brookings Data Center and author of a Policy Brief on youth employment in the Middle East and North Africa, reflected on the arguments made already in the course of the discussion, and continued to point toward data that suggests the pandemic has exacerbated inequalities globally. The massive use of technology that has been seen during the pandemic has only added to this divide, as the so called digital divide grew both between and within countries. Dr. Kabbani also suggested the importance of skills, and how skills can be an actual path toward better job attainment. He also mentioned to young people directly to not worry about climbing the career ladder so fast, and to find something that interests them, rather than being pressured into taking a job.

Finally, Dr. Golo Henseke, who works as a Research Officer and Principal Investigator of the project COVID-19 - Youth Economic Activity and Health Monitor at the Institute of Education, University College London (United Kingdom), mentioned the toll all of the worry surrounding employment and careers can have on young people and recent graduates, and how young people are more isolated than ever before, as a diret consequence of the ongoing pandemic. Dr. Henseke also discussed the critical importance of skills and enhanced support for skills training when considering how to best support young people out of this crisis. However, he cautioned the audience that the employment crisis seen today cannot just be solved by upskilling. Instead, it requires a more systemic approach.