The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we live, work and learn. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 3.5 million confirmed cases in 215 countries and territories around the world. Lockdown measures have been introduced in many of those countries, impacting over 1 billion students because of school closures, as well as 81% of employers and 66% of own-account workers, according to the latest International Labour Organization (ILO) data. Unemployment is estimated to rise between 5.3 and 27 million globally, and the statistics are particularly alarming in the case of youth (15-24) as they are already three times more likely to be unemployed than adults.
It might seem that young trainees and young professionals from Argentina, Australia, Uganda, France, Italy, India and the US would not have much in common. On 28 April, however, we had the pleasure of talking to young women and men from these seven countries about the impact of the pandemic on their education, training and employment. To get a fuller picture, we also invited experts from different organisations in these countries to share information about measures and policies that have been introduced since the beginning of the crisis.
We begin looking into their stories by saying, that although most of them are facing hardships, they are still the lucky ones: most were able to keep their jobs and the one person who did not received a compensation package; they have access to the internet and were able to connect with us and tell us their stories; and although these are tough times, they stay hopeful and positive. Let us look at some of the common threads in their stories.
In many countries the first work experiences that young people have are summer jobs, sometimes within the small business of a family member, doing the newspaper round, babysitting and gradually moving on to more complex roles in, for example, the hospitality and tourism sectors. With the advent of digital platforms and the gig economy, these kind of small ad-hoc jobs have become sometimes more accessible, providing further opportunities to earn money. Unfortunately, most of these opportunities exist within the informal sector, meaning that in times of crisis, these young people find themselves without social protection, health insurance or an income.
Our first stop is Argentina, a country with a very particular labour participation context: 25% of the labour force are informally employed and another 25% are self-employed. It is also a country in which access to the social security system is linked to employability; for this reason, non-standard forms of employment and freelance work are at a disadvantage in terms of rights. Compared against employed workers, freelancers have no paid vacation, sick leave, maternity leave, family allowances or severance pay, and are excluded from unemployment insurance. They do not have union representation either.
With the arrival of the pandemic strict social distancing measures were introduced on 19 March as well as a lockdown since the confirmation of the first COVID-19 cases. Mercedes Vitale, a Communications Officer at the Argentine Industrial Union (UIA), shared her impression of the current situation:
“The economic efforts of the government and the state don’t seem to cope with the economic necessities of the country. Over 50% of work is informal in Argentina and many of those affected are young people. There is a need to adapt to freelancers and entrepreneurs that right now have no policies working for them.”
Maria Constanza Mingolo from the Directorate of International Relations at the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security of Argentina, shared with us the measures that have been introduced so far:
“There are many vulnerable groups that are facing serious difficulties in this context: the unemployed, those that have lost their jobs because of the current situation, the informal workers, the self-employed, casual and gig workers. These are groups where youth is over represented, not only in Argentina, but in the world.
The priority of the Ministry became the protection of jobs and incomes, especially for those most vulnerable. With this in mind, we ordered additional payments for beneficiaries with low incomes and reinforced the amounts for parents with minor children. We’ve also created the Extraordinary Family Income, to cover resources for self-employed workers, those with low income, reaching 8 million people approximately. Within the 8 million people applying for the Extraordinary Family Income, young people ages 18 -25 are a majority among the informal workers and the unemployed. Although this measure is not targeted at young people, we are receiving a very high response from them, especially from those in vulnerable situations.”
The Argentinian government has made an effort to maintain already existing skilling programmes that support youth to online platforms. Formal education has also migrated online and, as Camila Mirabelli, a trainee at the German Argentine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (AHK) pointed out, her education continues according to plan. The only question still in the air is when and whether she will be able to take her exams and graduate.
In Australia, lockdown measures were introduced on 13 March 2020. But in this case, the pandemic hit a country that had already suffered the devastating impact of the summer bushfires. Kasia Zongollowicz, a film student from Melbourne, who was also working full time to support herself, was made redundant early in the lockdown. She was lucky, in her words, as she qualified for a compensation package, that has allowed her to stay financially stable, at least for now.
Not all young people are in the same situation as Kasia. In Australia, one in four workers is a casual worker and more than half have no guaranteed hours. Many young people are casual workers in the tourism and hospitality sectors. Gary Workman, Executive Director (ED) Secretary of the Apprenticeship Employment Network (AEN) and ED of GAN Australia, commented on the current situation:
“We are an industry association in Victoria and our members employ around 7000 apprentices and trainees across all industries and sectors. About 20% of our apprentices and trainees are being stood down and returned and are currently not working. But that doesn’t take into account a lot of our youth in Victoria that had casual jobs in tourism and hospitality. Most of those sectors have now been closed down for about 5 or 6 weeks. The Government at a federal level has started a number of programmes to pay a wage subsidy to employers, but to be eligible for that you had to be a full time worker, you had to be working before the 1st of March and in many cases you had to be employed with that employer for twelve months. It’s good for older workers and people that have established jobs, but a lot of young people in the casual workforce are not being picked up by the government programmes at the moment.”
The Victorian Government in collaboration with the Apprenticeship Employment Network (AEN) have just launched the Retrenched Apprentices and Trainees Program, that aims to assist apprentices and trainees who have lost their employment in completing their training. 
On the African continent, in Uganda, a different set of challenges emerged. Uganda is a country where 75% of the population is below the age of 30, and where youth unemployment – that is youth actively looking for a job - stands at 13.3%— making it a country with one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, 92% of youth in Uganda entering the workforce join the informal sector, which is an alarming statistic, especially bearing in mind that Uganda’s population is projected to grow exponentially to reach 100 million by 2050.
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was registered on 21 March and a set of lockdown measures was gradually implemented. Since then measures have included the temporary closing of educational institutions; banning religious, political, cultural and similar public gatherings, and prohibiting travel to 17 countries (mainly in Western Europe and Asia). Vanessa Atim, Founder and CEO of ProInterns told us about these measures and the impact of the virus:
“Strict measures have been put in place, including a 7 PM curfew to curb crime. Ugandans are naturally extremely friendly and social, so these measures have affected a large majority of the population, especially the youth. 75% of young people are engaged in vulnerable work and work within the informal sector or are unemployed, which means low earning and no productivity. Unfortunately, these young people are the hardest hit in our economy. Unfortunately, within the informal sector, there are no job retention schemes in relation to COVID-19 like there are in other countries. So it’s been very hard for those who are used to have an income on a daily basis and it is literally survival of the fittest at the moment.”
Social distancing has been the rule in most countries since the arrival of the pandemic. On a professional level it has meant a switch, where possible, to remote work and online collaboration. Unfortunately, the pandemic has highlighted the inequalities when it comes to access to digital tools and network infrastructure. Jerry Rawlings Mbabali, Country Manager at the African Mobility Observatory of the Michelin Group is a young professional in Uganda. He was set to conduct interviews for his research, but they have been put on hold, as many of the interviewees find themselves at home and struggling to juggle work and family, while others do not have access to the internet, making virtual interviews an impossibility.
In France, starting from 17 March, all movement outside of work commutes for essential workers who could not work from home was limited. Andréa Lefebvre, a Brand Management apprentice at Nestlé in France, was positively surprised:
“In the context of the pandemic, Nestlé decided to let all head office employees work from home and I was very grateful when I discovered that no distinction was made based on the different contracts at Nestlé, and even if I was an apprentice I could also work from home, be safe and not go on technical unemployment.”
As many of us, she tries to look on the bright side of the situation and sees an opportunity in being able to experience home office and work on the required skills. Where possible, education and training have also had to move online. In Europe, Italy became the epicentre of the COVID-19 pandemic with over 200,000 confirmed cases and over 30,000 deaths. After first closing the “red zone”, the region of Lombardy, on March 9, the Prime Minister announced a nation-wide lockdown. With the introduction of the COVID-19 prevention package, the Italian government set in place measures to ensure compliance with the movement ban and declared immediate closure of all schools and universities.
Lucia Baldisseri, a student at a technical school, CFP Istituto San Gaetano in Vicenza found herself attending virtual classes that sought to substitute her practical training through videos. Her internship was put on halt due to the closure of the businesses partnering with the school for the on-the-job training. About 400 of Lucia’s peers were in the process of completing their internships when the pandemic hit. For the school, coordinating a structured response to this unprecedented situation involved contacting all the employers and families of the students without fully understanding how the situation would unfold, but making an immediate decision to put the safety of the youth at the core of any action. A marketing teacher from the same school, Giorgia Guarda, gave us more details:
“We were the first school in our region in the North of Italy that introduced the online modality through Zoom. However, online lessons are very hard. It is very difficult to manage 25 people on one Zoom call and give a lesson. I teach marketing, so it’s easier in comparison to colleagues who teach bartending, cooking or practical skills for electricians. They have 4-hour classes that they’re trying to fill in with videos.”
But amidst the hardship, Giorgia has found a surprisingly positive effect. Some of her students are coming out of their shell, feeling more comfortable to participate in online classes; the physical distance offering protection of sorts. Her main concern, however, is linked to that physical distance:
“I feel that they’re alone. They were, in a way, alone before, because they spent a lot of time on videogames and social media. But now, they’re spending double that time alone. I think it will be the hardest part of our job to try to engage with them again and to teach them the importance of personal relationships.”
In India, an immediate closure of international borders and enforcement of national lockdown was introduced on March 21. India’s population of 1.3 billion across diverse states, health inequalities, widening economic and social disparities, and distinct cultural values presents unique challenges. Like in Italy, the educational institutions had to rapidly switch to on-line training methods, but they quickly stumbled upon a widespread problem. Because of the high population and the current situation, there has been an increase in data usage all over the country, lowering the general bandwidth. In addition, a significant part of the population does not have access to the internet, meaning that trainers are looking for other ways to reach some of their trainees and students. Pushkaraj Potawale, SkillSonics Trainer in Mechanical Engineering and his trainee, Vivek Zaware, shared with us:
“We usually impart practical training and have had to shift quickly from practical training to online training. We are currently looking for platforms and simulators to be able to deliver our training.”
The provision of online learning in the current context depends on the digital skills of both trainers and learners, as well as their access to relevant technology. To combat inequities in digital skilling, UNESCO have proposed focusing on deploying the right mix of high, low or no-tech solutions such as mobile, radio and TV to reach all groups. Multi-stakeholder partnerships must also play a key role, because government agencies and ministries charged with education, TVET and/or skilling cannot tackle this issue alone.
But there is a more personal and human side to social distancing that is weighing heavily on many of us. Although many countries are starting to implement lockdown exit strategies, keeping our distance is still key to protecting each other and this has a direct impact on many of our cultures. Camila, the trainee from Argentina, gave us a great example:
“Mate is our national beverage often drunk in social settings. We often use the same straw when drinking it, so obviously this has to change since COVID-19 is so contagious. It will be difficult to get used to the elbow bump greeting, stay 6 feet apart and to change our habits. Our country will also change, but it is crucial to focus on our wellbeing, because that’s what truly matters.”
Amidst the lockdown measures and the uncertainty on all levels, some young professionals are trying to transition either from school to work or from a first career opportunity to the next one. This is the case of Helen Waller, a young professional from US who used to work as a teacher in Myanmar and is now based in New Orleans. In a country with over 1 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 80,000 deaths, Hellen is finding the process of transitioning from her current job to a new opportunity oddly similar to her school to work transition. At the same time, she feels that the borders between personal and professional spheres have become blurred, as she asks herself whether reaching out and networking with other professionals under the current circumstances is appropriate or not. As many of the speakers, she tries to look on the bright side:
“I’m sure I’ll look back and there will be particular benefits from having done whatever we have to do at this time, whether that’s wait, grow, whether that’s learning, but seeing all of that in real time has been a challenge”.
Our journey around the world through our speakers’ stories shows us that we have very similar concerns regardless of where we live. Informality has a big impact particularly on our youth. The new non-standard forms of work are now a reality and we must find a way to extend basic social protection to those concerned. The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on a trend that has been growing over the last decade – remote work.
We are all both witness to and participants in a major shift in how work and training are done, accompanied by the need for quick adaptation. We are fortunate when our teams feel comfortable working, learning and collaborating virtually. Investing in appropriate remote infrastructure, however, remains a priority for countries, educational institutions, and businesses around the world. At a more individual level, we need to learn to be flexible and take advantage of the learning opportunities that contexts such as this crisis present to us; but we must not forget to take care of our mental health in the process and allow for a more human and understanding approach to how we work and learn during difficult times.
International organisations are coming together to collect as much data as possible on the current situation and seeking to understand the right way forward. The Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth and its partners are conducting a survey on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on youth rights, with a focus on employment and education (available in 20 languages). The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has launched the “Global survey on the impact of COVID-19 on staff development and training including apprenticeships and internships/ traineeships” available in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. Furthermore, ILO, UNESCO and World Bank Group launched the “Survey for TVET providers, policy-makers and social partners on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic” (available in 8 languages). If you are looking for specific examples and approaches, Cedefop has collected information on how 22 European countries are managing apprenticeships in this time of crisis. At GAN Global, we organised two other webinars in the month of April, the first one in collaboration with ILO on work-based learning (WBL) innovations and solutions in the time of COVID-19, and a webinar on digital skilling and how not to leave anyone behind available on our website.
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