Empathizing with the experiences of young Maldivians in the labour market

By: UNDP Maldives Accelerator Team - Khadeeja Hamid, Head of Solutions Mapping, Hussain Rasheed, Head of Experimentation, and Fernando Galindo, Research and Innovation Lead

Despite being a Middle-Income Country, men and women in the Maldives experience high levels of unemployment - Maldivian youth participate in one of the installments of social innovation camp 'Miyaheli'. Photo: Emmenge/UNDP Maldives.

 

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"I always wanted to become a doctor, but here I am studying business management.”

27-year-old Arusha had a bright sparkle in her eyes as she told us about her childhood dreams. However, as she continued narrating her journey - from the time she left school to where she is now -the sparkle faded and changed into something else. First, to despair and then to a hardy resolve and determination.

There were no medical schools in the Maldives at the time. So, after finishing high school, Arusha looked to continue her education abroad. Her dream of becoming a doctor was crushed when she realized that she could not afford medical school abroad. Soon after that, she joined an aviation company.

It has been eight years since then, and she has made her way through the field of aviation in various airlines.

"I have persevered in my job, despite many challenges. My work experience has created in me a curiosity for aircraft engineering & operations. However, it is impossible to go further in the field without proper qualifications. So, I am currently studying to get my bachelor's in business management," Arusha indicated to us.  

This is the story of one woman from Baa Dharavandhoo in the North of the Maldives. However, hers is not an isolated journey. Her story will resonate with many young women and men trying to find gainful employment and livelihood in the Maldives.  

Many young women and men struggle to find gainful employment and livelihood in the Maldives - Young woman seeks inspiration. Photo: Emmenge/UNDP Maldives.

 

Our challenge: exclusions in the labour market

Even before the pandemic young people remained primarily excluded from the labour market. Pandemic-related employment and livelihood losses further exacerbated that situation. 

The challenge that the Accelerator Lab at UNDP Maldives is grappling with in its first learning cycle is the issue of exclusions in the labour market.

The focus on this issue is timely.

Despite being a Middle-Income Country, men and women in the Maldives experience high levels of unemployment. According to the latest Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES), overall unemployment is at 5.3 percent (4.8 percent among women and 5.6 percent among men). Twenty-nine percent of youth between 18-35 years are not in education, employment, or training. Forty-one percent are women, and fifteen percent are men (National Bureau of Statistics, 2019). 

 

Higher education enrolment is low in the Maldives compared to other Middle-Income Countries (International Organization for Migration, 2018). Deficits in soft skills development, lack of focus on critical thinking in the education system and, inadequate investment in professional skilling programs leave the country with a labour force ill-equipped to meet its development needs.

This is the case, despite the willingness of those outside the labour force, to work in manual jobs as long as it ensures decent pay (ILO, 2019).

This picture is further complicated by weak labour governance that allows for the exploitation of migrant workers willing to work for less pay and under more straining working conditions. These elements lead to a situation where there is a race to the bottom in wages and working conditions. Gender stereotypes, issues related to harassment, unpaid care burden, and the gender pay gap remains as hurdles to women's participation in the labour force.

Seeking and retaining meaningful employment is even more challenging if you are based in an outer atoll or disabled.

Even before the pandemic young people remained primarily excluded from the labour market. Pandemic-related employment and livelihood losses further exacerbated that situation. 

Gender stereotypes, issues related to harassment, unpaid care burden, and the gender pay gap remains as hurdles to women's participation in the labour force - Youth of Kudafari island. Photo: Mohamed Nahee/UNDP Maldives.

 

Our process: deep listening and empathizing

This is a complex and multifaceted issue. While we were familiar with the statistics and the numerous reports on the subject, we also wanted to peel the complexity layers by understanding the diverse actors’ journeys, pathways, and experiences.

So, we started a series of exploratory exercises with young people, employers, and civil society actors. With the intent to humanize and “bring to life” the statistics that we were all too familiar with. To unpack, unlearn, and truly empathize.

We plan to share what we learned from these exploratory conversations in a four-part blog series. This first part of this blog series will focus on what we learned from our engagement with young people.

 

This first part of this blog series will focus on what we learned from our engagement with young people - Youth engaging in a discussion at social innovation camp 'Miyaheli'. Photo: Emmenge/ UNDP Maldives.

 

What we found out: perceived realities vs. lived realities  

Early on in our exploratory exercises, we realized that individuals' experiences challenge the commonplace narratives on the issue. As part of our attempt to unpack and unlearn, we wanted to identify and present how the insights from these exercises deflected from the commonly shared understandings on the issue. 

But before we proceed any further, we want to disclose that the group of young people we engaged falls into the "positive deviance" category, i.e., they are doing much better than their peers in terms of employment and education, despite facing the same hardships. An exploration of their pathways and journeys gave us an idea of what made a difference in charting a positive trajectory for them. It also helped us understand some of the common myths about young people and work that need to be challenged and dispelled.  

Individuals' experiences challenge the commonplace narratives on the issue of unemployment - A participant at social innovation camp 'Miyaheli'. Photo: Emmenge/UNDP Maldives.

 

Myth # 1: You need to be a doctor, a lawyer, a… (any white-collar profession) …

Almost all the young people we spoke to shared that they wanted to become doctors, lawyers, teachers, pilots, so forth, with the preference for a white-collar profession when they were growing up. They were guided by the adults in their lives - their parents and other family members - who wanted them to be in a job where they show up to work dressed in a suit and tie and sit in an air-conditioned room.

Many young people also shared how they had little choice in following their passions when charting out a career path. Many of them found this out the hard way, after having put years of training into a profession they later realized they had no passion for.

As adults, they have discovered that they can venture into many different technical and vocational professions that are more in line with their passions and have the potential of ensuring a decent livelihood. These include occupations in construction, creative and visual arts, marine conservation and recreation, so and so forth.

"If only we had better guidance when we were younger," many sighed with resignation.

They all spoke about the need for career guidance at school and access to vocational training opportunities for all students, not only for those who don't do well academically.

Many young people shared how they had little choice in following their passions when charting out a career path - Maldivian youth at 'Eco Camp'. Photo: Soneva Resorts.

 

Myth # 2: Young people are lazy!

Given the high unemployment and NEETs (not in employment, education, or training) statistics for young people - it is not uncommon to hear that young people are lazy, up to no good, and wasting away. 

Unfortunately, sometimes this same attitude towards young people permeates the work environment too. Young people shared how employers hesitate to trust them just because they don't have enough experience or may have a different way of approaching things.

Most young people in the country are incredibly passionate and creative individuals.

They are not lazy. But, yes, some of them for sure are de-motivated. From speaking to them, we know that inadequate onboarding mechanisms, lack of on the job training, weak appraisal mechanisms, and lack of flexibility to be more imaginative and creative are reasons young people are de-motivated to work.

Young people shared how employers hesitate to trust them just because they don't have enough experience or may have a different way of approaching things - Young man playing music in his island. Photo: Masrah Naseem/ UNDP Maldives.

 

Myth # 3: Career development is linear

When we unpacked the journeys of young people that we engaged with, it was evident that none of them had a linear path to career or livelihood development. Most of them had started with one thing in mind but ended up somewhere else. For instance, one woman whose childhood ambition was to become a doctor is currently training to become a teacher while at the same time working to establish a visual design consultancy business with her husband.

The journey was far from linear for most young people, and there are many obstacles and hardships along the way. Young people that we spoke to reported that what encouraged them to explore different pathways, learn new skills, start new ventures, take calculated risks, grow, and remain in the labour force despite many hardships, was support. That came in the form of internship opportunities, coaching, and mentorship. Unfortunately, such support is not widely available or accessible to all young people.  

The journey was far from linear for most young people, and there are many obstacles and hardships along the way - Maldivian youth engage in a group activity at 'Eco Camp'. Photo: Soneva Resort.

 

Our first experiment: how the pluriverse is helping us design it

“The truth was a mirror in the hands of God. It fell and broke into pieces. Everybody took a piece of it, and they looked at it and thought they had the truth."

As we wrap up the first part of our four-part blog series looking at exclusions in the labour market, we are reminded of the above words from the famous mystic and poet, Rumi.

Exploring the issue from multiple perspectives allow us to paint a more nuanced picture of reality - packed with contradictory yet true narratives. It creates space for a pluriverse or diverse multitude of truths that hold at the same time. What is captured in this blog is just one part of that pluriverse.  

Stories like Arusha’s is a reminder that there is more to any one issue than what meets the eye. Behind every single individual’s journey are layers of complexity, where public policy intersects with individual circumstances.

These listening exercises allow us to unpack these layers of complexity and identify the factors that could make a difference in changing young people’s lived realities in the labour market to a more positive one. We are hoping to use these insights to inform the design of our first experiment, focusing on addressing the issue of labour market exclusions.

Watch this space for more on our exploration exercises and our first experiment!

 

Listening and empathizing with young people allow us to unpack layers of complexity and identify the factors that could make a difference in changing young people’s lived realities in the labour market to a more positive one - Young people engage in the 'Social Good Summit'. Photo: UNDP Maldives.
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