The Biggest Challenge for Caribbean Youth & Why There’s Hope

The Biggest Challenge for Caribbean Youth & Why There’s Hope

Marcia Forbes PhD

IDB's Civil Society Meeting in Suriname

This is Part 2 of excerpts from ‘Caribbean Youth and Unemployment’ prepared for the Inter-American Development Bank’s ‘XIV Reunion BID – Sociedad Civil’ hosted in Nicaragua during late 2014.

Challenges of Joblessness

Rebelliousness Online & Offline

Joblessness and its challenges (including depression, hopelessness, indiscipline and rebelliousness, crime and drugs) threaten the safe future of the Caribbean, especially now in the era of social media where youth discontent can go viral online.

The long-term effects of unemployment can be debilitating for youths, particularly those who ‘did everything right’ by staying in school, doing well and graduating, only to be faced with joblessness or inability to find work that is satisfying and which allows them to look after themselves financially.

The problem of high levels of joblessness in the Caribbean is therefore cause for grave concern at many levels, with the potential for social unrest as seen in other parts of the world.

Wage Scars

Apart from the real risk of youth violence, there is the more sinister and hidden risk of wage scars, where, having experienced long spells of unemployment in early life, many are dogged by this throughout their adult life and never achieve optimum wage-earning levels.

Social Media & Aspirational Lifestyles

Via Facebook, Instagram and other social networks, Caribbean youth see their counterparts in other countries posting pictures of a better life. Not all these pictures reflect the reality of those who post them. Many pose beside other people’s property, for example in clothes stores and beside parked cars. Still, ‘aspirational’ pictures help to foment disaffection as ‘the grass is greener on the other side’.

Despite household Internet penetration levels of less than 50% in most Caribbean countries, youths find ingenious ways of getting online and viewing what others of their age cohort are posting.

Best Practices/Strategies to Facilitate Youth Employment & Empowerment

It is easy to identify the numerous issues facing Caribbean youth in their quest for employment which will help them to lead fulfilling, productive and worthwhile lives as useful citizens. Finding solutions is more challenging; however, the region is beginning to focus on concentrated, sustained and unified efforts in its quest for solutions. One important way forward is to revise our mind-set about youths.

Rethink how we view youth

Too often youths are problematized and seen as a burden on society rather than as creative contributors. Young people in any country are the purveyors of that country’s culture. This is especially so in the Caribbean where youths dominate in sports (track and field, netball, football, cricket) and entertainment (music and dance, fashion, film).

For good as well as for bad, within the Caribbean, it is youth who have stamped the identity of the region. Consider Usain Bolt and ShelleyAnn Fraser-Pryce of Jamaica, Rihanna of Barbados and Niki Minaj of Trinidad and Tobago (T&T). Long before these youths, other youths like Bob Marley of Jamaica and the Mighty Sparrow of Trinidad stamped their country’s identity.

Cultivate Culture of Entrepreneurship

Fostering a culture of youth entrepreneurship is one approach to assisting the region. Over the past two years Caribbean Governments, in partnership with the World Bank, IDB, Caribbean Development Bank, telecoms companies and other entities such as USAID, DFID and CIDA, have been focussed on this approach, with specific emphasis on ICT skills. A series of training events have been executed through a regional initiative called Caribbean Growth Forum.

Training kicked off in Jamaica with DigitalJam 2.0 hosted in 2012 with five thousand youths in attendance. Over two days, through seminars, hand-on training and interface with 1st World experts, they were exposed to web-based job opportunities such as eLancing and micro-work. They were also exposed to the basics of running a small business. The excitement among those in attendance was palpable. Youths began to see opportunities where before there was only despair.

DigitalJam 3.0 ‘Caribbean Edition’, hosted in Jamaica March 2014, was well-supported by youths throughout the region, with representatives from six other countries. Again one could feel the excitement in the room, especially in relation to the apps creation competition which had over 180 submissions and where the winner stood to gain US$10,000 in seed-funding for execution of the winning mobile application into a business venture.

The Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship – Caribbean, under the leadership of Sir Richard Branson, is another example of the thrust toward fostering a culture of youth entrepreneurship. Opened in Jamaica’s second city and tourist capital, Montego Bay, in September 2011, this centre’s primary thrust is to “support the development of small and growing businesses to create jobs and contribute to the economy in the Caribbean region”

My own informal tracking of youths who have attended the Branson Centre, many of whom are avid tweeters, reveals tremendous growth and development in their businesses as well as in their self-confidence. LaceyAnn Bartley and Gordon Swaby are striking examples.

Youth Entrepreneurs

Growing up in her family’s small, rural-based, furniture-making business, LaceyAnn has extended the product line into her own wooden hair accessories branded as ‘woogies’ as well desk items for offices. In January 2014 she won The Bold Ones, a competition for small local manufacturers. In June the Jamaica Business Development Corporation of Jamaica named LaceyAnn Bartley ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’. A visit to any of her social media accounts shows that LaceyAnn is using these communication technologies to the advantage of her business.

Since 2012 there have been strides by regional Governments and their international partners toward ensuring that regional youths better understand the value of Internet access and how to use this to earn a living. The success of youth entrepreneurs like Gordon Swaby with his EduFocal, the online gamification of education as one approach to ramping up CXC passes, has been well-promoted not just in Jamaica but at the global level through the instrumentality of the IDB.

Start-Up Jamaica is a five-year Government of Jamaica initiative, launched early September 2014 with U$30,000 support funding. It targets young innovators and entrepreneurs, with funding available to assist them to grow their ideas into marketable products and services. While it is early days yet for this project, what is clear is the concerted thrust toward supporting youth entrepreneurship as one avenue for youth employment.


Even as the Caribbean region struggles with youth joblessness, highlighting possible opportunities as well as those who are making it despite the odds will help other youths to see that they too can achieve.

January 12, 2015