Addressing the Challenges of Global Youth Unemployment: How Alcoa Foundation is Closing the Gap Between Manufacturing Jobs and Talent

A recent episode of NPR’s popular broadcast Morning Edition, deplored the fact that 5.8 million young Americans are neither in school nor work. What’s more, according to the show, in some parts of the United States, “the unemployment rate among 16 to 24 year-olds is more than twice the national unemployment rate, which is currently 6.3 percent.” However, youth unemployment is not only a U.S. problem.

The International Labor Organization estimates that, globally, there are 75 million young people who are unemployed. Paradoxically, many entry-level jobs around the world remain unfulfilled because companies cannot find people with the right skills.

To address this global problem, almost a year ago, Alcoa Foundation launched the Global Internships for Unemployed Youth program. Utilizing a network of strategic partnerships with youth and workforce development NGOs in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, Russia, Spain, and the United Kingdom, the program, which is managed by IIE, aims to increase the employability of youth in the manufacturing sector and to increase the pool of talent available to small- and medium-sized manufacturing companies.

Initial Results Look Promising

So far, a total of 207 young people globally (174 young men and 33 young women), as well as 56 small- to medium-sized companies have been engaged in the program. For the interns, the program experience has been invaluable. In addition to learning on the shop floor, students are provided assistance with resume development, interviewing skills, and other soft skills that are important in today’s workforce. In fact, some of the interns have already been able to secure full-time positions, while others have secured necessary skill sets or an employment history that they can use as they look for employment.

For example, out of the 50 young people who started the internship program with The Pump, a Birmingham, UK-based youth and community development organization, 35 have already found employment. This number is the more impressive when you consider that almost 50 percent of the young people residing in Shard End (the area of Birmingham where The Pump is based and operates) are unemployed and out of school. Another great example of the positive impact of the internship program comes from Geelong in Australia. Partner NGO, Northern Futures, which serves the northern suburbs of Geelong (an area with 9.9 percent unemployment rate, which is almost double the 5.8 percent general unemployment rate in Australia) has already engaged 15 young men and women in the internship program. Moreover, several of the participants, such as Jessie Tot, Aaron Ramsey, Daniel Bodnar, and Caitlin Wilson, have already graduated the program and report that the program has not only helped them obtain jobs, but has also helped them turn their lives around.

Benefits for Small to Medium Sized Manufacturers

While the program is a great benefit for the interns, the participating Small and Medium Sized Manufacturers (SMMs) have benefited enormously as well. Since the internship is fully covered by the Alcoa Foundation, manufacturers are able to work with the interns without the expense and hassle of having them on the payroll or, as Carolyn Brynson who coordinates the internship program for NGO partner Bellingham Technical College (BTC) puts it, “Most of the companies who participate in the internship are extremely happy because BTC handles all the administrative tasks such as keeping track of interns timesheets and getting them paid.”

This means that globally SMMs—such as Stanwood RediMix and LKQ Corporation (Bellingham, Washington State), Cherokee Millwright and Mechanical (Blount County, Tennessee), Léveillée Tanguay and Métalitech (Quebec, Canada), Showerline and Vehicle Modification Specialists (Geelong, Australia), Priority Castors and Arthur John Charles, LTD (Birmingham, UK) and Rey Emballage and Huaume (Sarthe Nord, France), to name a few—can concentrate on providing the interns with the best possible experience while also fully taking advantage of the “free” labor at their disposal.

Both the interns and hiring manufacturers can effectively test drive each other to see if there is a fit, risk free. Seems like the perfect solution to an economic dilemma of supply and demand. Except the program has encountered some challenges, which Alcoa Foundation and IIE together with their global partners are currently trying to address.

Challenges to Paid Internship Programs in Manufacturing

  • Some small- to medium-sized manufacturers find it difficult to offer internships, since they are not set up to have interns on their shop floor. As with any good intern program, someone needs to be responsible for the intern’s development, and without a point person, the internship can fail. Rather than risk taking the time to mentor interns, certain smaller companies avoid bringing them on board.
  • Union rules sometimes prevent participants from stepping right onto the factory floor and training without receiving a company-specific orientation. In other cases, safety certification has to be completed before being allowed on the shop floor.
  • Attracting female participants to the internships has not been easy as there are lingering perceptions that manufacturing is not appropriate for women (young women comprise only 16 percent of the interns so far).
  • Locations of manufacturing firms are not always easily accessible to the youth who often rely on public transportation. 
  • Single parents don’t have access to affordable child care.
  • Some students are in school and cannot participate in an internship during school hours.
  • Unemployed youth don’t always follow-through on their commitment. They fail to understand the importance of following instructions and reporting to supervisors.

Despite the challenges and obstacles manufacturers and youth face, paid internships in the field of manufacturing for unemployed and underemployed youth seems to be meeting a need for them and the marketplace.

For small- to medium-sized manufacturers willing to open their shop doors and let the youth from their community in, it is an opportunity to teach them skills they can use both within their manufacturing firm and beyond while also helping to reduce the unemployment rate locally.

For interns willing to gain experience in the manufacturing field, it is an opportunity to acquire skills in a field that continues to grow, and it can provide them with sustainable and long-term work.

The Alcoa Foundation Youth Internships Program is just one step in breaking the cycle of youth unemployment and underemployment, but it is a step in the right direction.