Youth unemployment in both wealthy and developing nations is in part due to a dearth of skills training. In turn, the lack of economic opportunities for the world’s young workers is one of the most pressing challenges for governments struggling to maintain their legitimacy and for businesses starving for talent.
If the global business community is to benefit from qualified and well-trained employees in the coming years, information communications technology (ICT) capacity will be critical in every sector – from agriculture and manufacturing to the creative arts.
Since the advent of the internet in the mid-1990s, many ICT firms have worked with governments to bridge the digital divide. Nevertheless, free or low-cost broadband is only a bridge to nowhere if young people do not have the necessary technical skills to contribute.
And as government austerity programmes, coupled with the soaring cost of education, deliver a one-two punch that pushes skills training out of reach, it is now even more important that companies step in if they are guaranteed a pipeline of future talent and stable markets in which to conduct business.
One of the world’s largest software companies, Microsoft, believes its new programme focused on innovative technology education can inspire the world’s youth to empower themselves. YouthSpark is a new company-wide initiative to erase the gap between young workers who already benefit from skills training, and their peers who cannot afford nor access it.
More than technical skills
For more than a decade Microsoft had worked on solving the pesky challenges of the digital divide, but in recent years it realised that problems were more than simply about access to technology. With young workers struggling to gain a foothold in the global workforce – young adults often have an unemployment rate double their older peers in many nations – the company decided the issue was that students as young as six needed expanded opportunities for education, employment or entrepreneurship.
Not only do children and teens need to learn technical skills, but, according to Microsoft’s general manager for citizenship and public affairs, Lori Harnick, they must be inspired, empowered and realise their dreams.
For Microsoft to become an agent of change, the company had to rethink its decades-old traditional philanthropic approach of donations to charities. Meanwhile, as the company grew across geographic regions and product lines, business units throughout the company were quick to start programmes benefiting youth. Last year the company’s citizenship team decided to link many programmes together, streamline others and create new ones to help young talent compete in a complex world.
After 18 months in the planning, YouthSpark promises to provide support to as many as 300 million young people from the ages of six to 24 at a cost of $500m (£309m) over the next three years. Grouped into three areas, two dozen programs will offer a variety of initiatives to students, young professionals and teachers.
Some programmes leverage the company’s products, such as Skype In The Classroom, to connect with thought-leaders across the world and expose students to subjects ranging from environmental sustainability to the creative arts. DreamSpark provides design and developer software programs at no cost to students who otherwise would not be able to afford them. In turn children can create games for the PC or XBox via Kodu Game Lab, which helps channel these budding software developers to express themselves creatively, learn storytelling techniques or boost their creativity.
As students become old enough to join the global workforce, they can participate in BizSpark, a programme that allows them to link to investors, mentors and other entrepreneurs.
A lifelong career-building curriculum
Microsoft says that the way it conceptualised YouthSpark could allow millions to use it as a lifelong career-building curriculum, culminating in the Microsoft Students to Business initiative that has so far linked 15,000 students to internships and jobs with Microsoft’s partners and customers in 65 nations.
One successful programme running in the US is the brainchild of Kevin Wang, a Microsoft engineer who was concerned about the lack of computer science education in high schools. In 2009, Wang started volunteering his time to teach computer science at a Seattle high school on the way to work.
Microsoft executives caught wind of his work and funded his idea. Wang then developed a curriculum, and a year later Technology Education and Literacy in Schools (Teals) was launched. Now the programme, which includes a three-month volunteering program for engineers interested in teaching computer science, has rolled out to 37 schools and 2,000 students in five more states and the District of Columbia.
For Microsoft and its 94,000 employees, YouthSpark offers many channels through which they can contribute to their communities’ efforts to bolster education and mentoring in a more competitive world. But this massive program is more than just volunteering or donating money – by tapping into the latent talent of millions of young people, the company could very well contribute to economic growth and therefore strengthen its future business. After all, a technologically-savvy population is one that can afford and uses the products of Microsoft and its competitors.
Companies mulling over programmes similar to that of Microsoft’s should view it as more than doing good on a global scale – it is also about their viability in a rapidly changing and fiercely competitive world.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010