This fall, young people in many parts of the world are preparing to go back to school. The prospect of putting on new clothes, joining sports teams and seeing old friends makes this a time filled with anticipation and joy.
However, many youth in Latin America lack opportunities to pursue their education, or have dropped out of school before they acquire the necessary skills to succeed in life. Without quality education and basic skills, the future can be bleak.
One in five youth between the ages of 15 and 24 in the region is out of school and not working. Known as NiNis (ni estudian nitrabajan — neither studying nor working), this problem is most pervasive among young women in cities who don’t have the skills that employers want.
Many find themselves traveling north to find work or becoming involved in situations where crime and violence, as well as trafficking in persons, are pervasive. Many cannot return to formal schooling, but skills training can provide an alternative so they can continue their education and enter the workforce.
Improving the skills of out-of-work youth in Latin America is a smart investment, because not only does it provide more viable opportunities for youth to remain in their countries of origin, it helps countries develop economies that generate prosperity and opportunities that cross borders. Empowering young women is a core pillar of sustainable development.
USAID invests in global education and training programs because we know that the positive effects of education are far-reaching. Education serves as a driver of economic growth and reduces some of the causes of extreme poverty. It also provides youth with alternatives to becoming involved in gangs and violence.
In Honduras, USAID is providing opportunities for education, skills building and hope for a promising future for young people like Damaris Betsabel Ruiz.
Damaris is a single teenage mother of an 18-month-old child. For her, continuing her education seemed unimaginable. That was before she found USAID’s Project Metas, named after the Spanish word for “goals.”
Through Metas, Damaris and other youth have acquired knowledge and skills for both their personal and professional lives. The project focuses on developing the attitude and behaviors necessary to thrive while doing meaningful work for a living wage.
Honduras is one of the most violent countries in the world, and data show that being out-of-school and unemployed can increase a young person’s risk of becoming a victim or a perpetrator of violence.
Since 2010, the Metas program has trained 55,000 at-risk youth in basic work readiness skills such as reading, applied math, problem solving and critical thinking. To connect these youth with jobs, Metas developed more than 200 strategic alliances with the private sector. Damaris now works in the service industry.
In neighboring El Salvador, Nellys Xiomara Escobar Campos is a proud entrepreneur. In this Central American country, USAID funded a project, “Jovenes Constructores” — or Young Builders — to help youth acquire the necessary skills to get a job, get a better job, or start their own small business.
Through the program, more than 1,600 at-risk youth completed training, and 60 percent of participants found new or better employment.
Nellys now owns and managers her own bakery.
USAID’s education investment in Latin America has focused on skills development and encouraging out-of-school youth to enroll in training programs, return to school, or find work.
By combining training in technical skills as well as soft skills such as how to communicate effectively and behave professionally in the workplace, young people are not only gaining a foundation for lifelong learning, they are contributing to the region’s peace, security and economic prosperity.
For Nellys, Damaris and countless other young men and women around the world, USAID programs are instrumental in helping them get the skills they need to succeed, altering the trajectory of their lives.
About the author: Olga M. Merchan is a Youth and Workforce Development Advisor in USAID’s Office of Education.
Editor's note: This entry originally appeared on USAID's Medium page.