BAKU, Azerbaijan - Like most lead countries participating in the United Nations Secretary-General's Youth Employment Network (YEN) ( Note 1), Azerbaijan is a young nation: 65 per cent of its economically active population are young people aged 18 to 34.
Whilst these young people represent an enormous asset, such a large proportion of youth also poses serious challenges, especially in the sphere of employment.
A labour force survey conducted in 2003 with the ILO's technical support, revealed alarming trends. Young people accounted for 69 per cent of the country's unemployed. The employment rate among people 15 to 24 years of age was 19.9 per cent for men and 21.3 per cent for women. The youth employment problem was aggravated by the presence of 1 million refugees and forcibly displaced persons, many of whom are young people.
A massive national campaign to address the problem started in 2003 when President Ilham Aliyev set up the goal to create 600,000 jobs in five years.
The ILO offered its support in developing a National Employment Strategy (with components on vocational training, small and medium-sized enterprises, and social protection), a National Action Plan on Employment (NAPE) and a National Action Plan on Youth Employment (NAPYE) ( Note 2), which is - most importantly - not a separate document but an integral part of NAPE.
The strategy will be approved by the President of Azerbaijan in the coming weeks. Once approved, the Government plans hold a National Youth Employment Forum. The Forum will bring together all parties concerned, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations that will contribute to the implementation of the NAPE.
One of the Government's key partners is the National Assembly of Youth Organizations (NAYORA). More than 20 youth NGOs and other civil society organizations, led by NAYORA, have formed a Youth Employment Coalition of Azerbaijan (YECA).
"The coalition format and status allows it to work closely with the Government", says Fuad Muradov, Chairman of NAYORA. "We have already made several important comments and additions to the Youth Employment Action Plan. On the eve of the Forum we have collected essays from young people in all regions. We asked them to make their own proposals referring to the national employment policy. You will be surprised how mature and profound some of the contributions were. We compiled a list of 25 such proposals to be discussed at the Forum."
In November 2004, NAYORA initiated a youth conference entitled "Challenges and Opportunities facing Young People in Azerbaijan". The main goal was to help identify priorities and contribute to strategies for improving the life of young people.
"We have identified several critical issues related to youth employment. First of all, there is a mismatch between the educational system and the labour market demand", says Ali Naghiyev, Minister of Labour and Social Protection of Population. "Too many graduates cannot find suitable jobs and have to register as unemployed at the employment services. Meanwhile, enterprises are looking for well-paid qualified specialists in the construction and oil industry. Our vocational training system is outdated and does not meet the requirements of the modern market economy", he adds.
Azerbaijan has already started a joint project with the ILO aimed at assisting young people in going through this difficult "school to work" transition period.
"The successful implementation of the oil strategy, the opening of a pipeline from Baku to Tbilisi to Geyhan, the construction of the rail transport corridor from Baku to Tbilisi to Kars and further development of economic integration will directly help developing the social agenda. The decision has been already taken to allocate additional funds to various social programmes", says Ali Naghiyev.
Youth employment was high on the agenda at this year's International Labour Conference in Geneva. Confronted with record levels of youth unemployment in recent years, delegates from more than 100 countries discussed pathways to decent work for youth and the role of the international community in advancing the youth employment agenda. In its final report, the Conference Committee on Youth Employment concluded that an ILO plan of action to promote youth employment should be practical and based on building knowledge, advocacy and technical assistance.
Delegates recognized that decent employment opportunities for young people will need to grow substantially, with particular emphasis on developing countries where 85 per cent of the world's more than 1 billion youth live. The Committee also encouraged the ILO to continue playing a leading role in the UN Secretary General's Youth Employment Network (YEN) and to extend the YEN to other countries, both developing and developed.
So far, 13 countries have stepped forward to volunteer as lead countries of the YEN, they are: Azerbaijan, Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Mali, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Sri Lanka, the Syrian Arab Republic and the United Kingdom.
Note 2 - Two UN General Assembly resolutions, Resolution A/RES/57/165 on promoting youth employment and Resolution A/RES/58/133 on policies and programmes involving youth, encourage countries to prepare National Reviews and Action Plans on youth employment and to involve young people in this process.