Interview with Leesa Kaplan, Chief of Party, El Salvador USAID Bridges to Employment Project

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Interview by Maria Brindlmayer, Senior KM Specialist, YouthPower Learning, with Leesa Kaplan, Chief of Party, El Salvador USAID Bridges to Employment Project

Maria Brindlmayer: Leesa, it’s really great to talk with you about the project “Puentes Para El Empleo”. I know that over the last year and a half, there has been a lot of progress made on your project, for example with new research completed.  But before we get into too many details, can you tell our readers about your project and what it aims to achieve?

Leesa Kaplan: Sure, the project goals — in simplified terms — are to provide opportunities for youth, particularly at-risk youth, through training and job preparation that helps them gain dignified employment in the communities where they live. In some cases, we know that youth may choose to go back to school and continue their academic training, whether it's advancing through high school or going on to tertiary education. And in other cases, and that’s what the project is focused on, youth may choose training in technical fields. The project is focused on four economic areas: agroindustry, manufacturing, IT and tourism. Those four economic sectors have been chosen as a result of the Labor Market Assessment that we conducted.

After completion of the training, youth can either look for jobs or they can choose to become entrepreneurs.
 
MB: You mentioned the Labor Market Assessment. What was the purpose of the assessment, and did you do any other studies to inform your work?

LK: We conducted four studies during the first year of the project, and the purpose of all them was, not so much to contribute to the academic body of research, but primarily to guide the project and help us design and implement the activities for the project.

The Labor Market Assessment helped us to determine not only the four economic sectors but also looked at the geographic focus of the project. In the beginning of the year, the research helped us to select eight priority municipalities for project implementation. The selected municipalities are those where the principal companies and employers are based in the country. There is a corridor in the country where we anticipate that most of our youth will be employed.  
 
MB: And what other studies did you do?

LK: We conducted a Participatory Youth Assessment. In that study, we aimed to find out the barriers that youth face to gaining employment and to receiving training, including the societal barriers and the stigma that is placed on youth. To learn more about these aspects, we not only talked to employers, but also directly to youth. That is why we called it a "participatory youth survey", because the youth participated in the study and shared information about themselves.

We also conducted a survey, or an assessment, of training centers, to understand their needs. The project aims to strengthen training centers and help them become 21st century educators for youth. We want to help them with curricula, help them improve their training of trainers, help them improve their methodologies, their infrastructure, their systems of administration, their equipment, so that they can improving the quality of the training they offer, ensuring that it is applicable to current employment needs.

The fourth assessment that we did was a policy assessment. We looked at national policies related to academic, professional and employment policies on at-risk youth, as well as employers’ policies and practices in implementation of the national policies.

We found that there is existing legislation surrounding employment of youth, however, not all of it is implemented, not all of it is followed, and it’s complicated to access the incentives that employers might have available to them for offering opportunities to youth.

Many people don’t even know that these laws exist. So, part of the job is to conduct a media campaign in which we let people know that these laws do exist to help employers and to help youth. The challenges are to teach, educate and share with the society the value of youth and convince people that while there are many challenges with violence in the country, in many cases the youth are victims — not perpetrators — of the violence. Simply because they live in violent communities, youth are all considered “the violent ones” and not necessarily considered victims of the violence surrounding them.  We are working to change that view. 
 
MB: Can you please give us a little background about the level of violence and circumstances for youth in El Salvador?

LK: The project works in the most violent communities. Violence is typically measured in terms of homicide rate, but it’s also fear, extortion, threats, theft, violence against boys, and violence against girls. And in many cases, the youth don’t even feel comfortable leaving their own homes. Going outside of their communities can be dangerous, because they might be crossing community borders lines and passing through areas that are dominated and controlled by certain gangs. Thus, if a training center is in another community, even though it might be almost next door, some youth can’t go, because they can’t go into a community that is controlled by another gang, even if they are not a gang member. Thus, this is an issue not only for working in another community but even for being trained in another community. This is one of the most difficult challenges we face.

Another challenge that youth face is the stigma of being young. Employers require people applying to entry-level positions to have a year or two of experience. So, getting that very first job is very challenging for youth, on top of all the other things we talked about in terms of violence. Employers’ expectations for entry-level jobs are too difficult for them to meet.

So, according to employers, youth who have graduated — even those who have finished with a technical degree — are not qualified for a job without years of experience in the field.

Often, youth face other challenges as well. Sometimes, their parents and siblings or relatives fear for them and don’t let them do certain things; or they have already been threatened; or they may be victims of violence in their own homes.

Many young women are mothers and don't have the support that they need to gain employment and find an opportunity for training.
 
MB: What are the aspirations of the youth in El Salvador? What did your survey show?

LK: For the most part, youth want to stay where they are. We all think that Salvadoran youth want to go to the United States. It's actually not true. They look at going abroad as their last resort. Young people want to stay where they are, find a dignified job, a well-paid job, at least at minimum wage, which is $300 a month. They want to be safe in their communities. Their aspirations are much like youth anywhere. But we don't often attribute those qualities to them because people often think that everyone just wants to come to the United States and find a job. That's not necessarily true.
 
MB: What are the biggest obstacles from the legal perspective that hamper youth employment?

LK: We have learned that sometimes, youth are taken advantage of. Youth are so desperate to gain experience that they often will take an internship or an apprenticeship, or practicum, where they don't get paid, just to gain experience. Employers take advantage of that. Because they're not paid, they are considered “practicing”. At the end of the six weeks, they are let go and the next group of interns are taken onboard. Thus, employers get free labor, and they continue to use internships and apprenticeships for free labor.
 
MB: At what phase in your project are you currently?  Have you completed all your research?

LK: We have completed the research, but we haven't published the results of the research yet. We are waiting for approvals and hope to soon share the research results with the communities that are interested. We have begun training youth in technical skills, life skills and soft skills. And we have started to place, or help to place, youth in jobs.

We have also been working to build the relationships between the private sector and training institutions so that the institutions can better understand the needs of employers and so that the training centers can turn out youth that are qualified for work.

While we were doing this, we found that the training centers needed a lot of strengthening. We are currently in the process of awarding grants to training institutions. We will provide them with resources so that they become better at what they do.
 
MB: What grants have you launched or announced so far?

LK: The first Request For Applications (RFA) that we announced was for the training centers to provide technical training for professions in the four target sectors: agroindustry, manufacturing, IT and tourism.

We've also worked with grant applicants to help them identify their needs.  We know that many of the training institutions sometimes want the grant to allow them to keep doing the same things that they have always done for 25 years or so. Thus, having the training centers identify what their weaknesses are is a challenge, but we hope that they have learned something and that they will apply for support, especially financial support and other kind of resources in their grant application, so that they can improve the quality and relevance of the courses they are offering. That is the first RFA that we put out.

One of the requirements of the RFA is that training institutions[Office2]  have to partner with the private sector. We also encourage them to partner with other institutions that would offer contributions, for example a large training center, because we know that some of the institutions  simply don't have the capacity to train more than 25 youth at the same time; they don't have space. We also want the training centers to include soft skills and life skills in their trainings.

We would also like the training institutions to offer certifications or to certify their curricula. It was surprising that some of the training institutions weren't able to think bigger. For example, one training institution asked: "Is it possible with the grants to fix our machines, because our machines are broken and we cannot train the youth?" And we said, “Well, you don't need to fix those machines — buy new ones with the grants.” Wow, they were surprised that they could have that opportunity! Hopefully they will include these bigger dreams in their applications.
 
MB: From all the Positive Youth Development (PYD) features, which is your implementation focused on the most? And perhaps we can also talk about changing the enabling environment for them?

LK: You asked about the enabling environment: we know that we need to work with the population at large.  We need to change attitudes, we need to change behaviors, and we need to change perceptions of youth. We are beginning by hiring a public relations firm to help us do a media campaign on this.

Right now we are establishing a baseline so that we will be able to measure mid-term and long-term changes of attitudes and behaviors that can be achieved through media action. We need to not only change the population's attitudes but also help the youth to respect themselves and to have a better self-concept.
 
MB: How do you intend to change the perception of the employers about youth? You said that they don't have very high expectations from the youth.

LK: We started with inviting interested employers to meetings, to trainings, to breakfast groups, exposing them to positive messages about youth. We also highlight champions — the employers that are already doing a great job. These champions can provide examples of success in hiring youth and show how youth helped their company to grow. We hope the champions can share their experiences with the other interested businesses.  The bigger challenge will be to reach those businesses that are not interested in youth. We hope to leverage the success of the ones that we start with to do that.  So when we can start to share how the changes created success, then, maybe some other businesses will join in.
 
MB: How are you overcoming the transportation issues? You mentioned the issue with moving from one municipality to another. If it's controlled by other gangs, how are you going to overcome that issue?

LK: Right now, the project defines “place-based” as where youth live, work or study. Youth want to stay where they are, so we are trying to find ways to address that and encourage employers to offer meaningful jobs where youth live.  We hope to support training institutions to provide transportation to their students through the grants program.
 
MB: Is entrepreneurship an option to achieve that?

LK: Entrepreneurship is one option. Puentes expects to start training youth in entrepreneurial skills in year two.

We certainly recognize that transportation is a challenge — it is dangerous to get on a bus and go through a violent community or one of an opposing gang. We hope that the training institutions will do what some employers have started to do: buy vans for transportation through the project’s grants program.  We already have employers who pick up their staff and take them home at the end of their shifts, especially when they are working late at night. We know that some training institutions do not have the capacity to do this now, but we hope that through the grant, they will be able to offer this option to their youth. It's not the best solution because it won’t solve the crime and violence, but it's a way for youth to get to the training institutions and have the opportunity to learn.

MB: Is there a remote learning component in your project?

LK: Yes. The Ministry of Education does offer online learning through its “flexible modality” that gives youth a way to go back to school and complete high school. We know that in the project, some of the youth that we recruit might not be able to start our technical training for lack of basic skills and may need to go back to school. We also hope that the training institutions that have applied for grants will offer creative ways of implementing their coursework.
Another online component we are working on is an online game with content on life skills and soft skills to engage youth from the start.   When we recruit young people to participate in the project, they often expect to be immediately placed in a training program. That is not always the case as we don't have rolling admissions in all courses.  We hope to engage them with the games so that they can play and learn at the same time, while they are waiting for their technical training to start.
 
MB: What do you see as your biggest challenge for next year?

LK: I think that the biggest challenge now is the capacity of the training institutions to undertake the work that we expect in the time that we want.  They may not have the ability to scale up so quickly.
Even if we are providing them with the financial resources, we wonder if they have the capability to do this work. It's very hard to change a training institution from a center with a few computers and two dozen youth, for example, into something bigger and better, i.e., training hundreds of youth starting in the next few months, even with all the additional resources that the project can offer.  We have high targets that we are expected to meet. Thus, the capacities of our training institutions to do this work is one of our biggest challenges to overcome.
 
MB: I know it's still early in the project, but do you have any success stories that you can share?

LK: Sure. We started training in May 2016. Many of our technical training courses are short term, and we have young people who are already working and some who have started their own businesses.
We also have success stories with young women, for example, entering careers that are traditionally for men, and being successful in those careers. We have helped training institutions and employers recognize that they too can train and hire young women for jobs traditionally designated for men.
We are tracking the youth who began the training in the first year so that we can continue to follow their successes.
 
MB: Great. That is excellent.

LK: Thank you, we have a lot of challenges. It's a very large project, and we have a number of partners who we hope will carry on after the project is over.  We want to be able to leave things in place so the government ministries, the private sector, the training institutions, the civil society organizations and the other NGOs can continue this work after we leave.
 
MB: One last question. Do you have any recommendations for any other projects? Is there anything that if you did it all over again you would do differently?

LK: Not all projects have research components in the beginning, like we did. I think it helped us ground the activities that we were doing. We didn't come in and impose something that was not based on local realities or evidence.

While we did have a course of action in the beginning, we used the results from the assessments to guide our way forward.  We are able to show project stakeholders that what we are doing is based in reality, in the local context, in what they've asked for, and what they have recognized as their needs. We are working with them on the problems that they have identified.

MB: Thank you very much, Leesa! We look forward to checking in with you again in the future and hope to benefit from your success stories, experiences and lessons learned!