From Young People to Active Changemakers
UNICEF’s UPSHIFT programme teaches entrepreneurship to inspire adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds in Italy to become active changemakers.
The Challenge of Employment for Young People in Italy
By March 2020, closures and lockdowns imposed by governments forced 90% of students worldwide out of school. The impacts of such restrictions are yet to be fully understood, although there seems to be a growing consensus that they will be wide and long-lasting. Moreover, these impacts add on to the consequence of two other once in a lifetime economic crises – the dot-com bubble burst and the Great Recession – which, in countries such as Italy, have already took a toll in terms of widening inequality and decreasing opportunities.
Children and adolescents in Italy, despite living in one of the richest countries on Earth, are confronted every day with the dire impacts of the pandemic. Not only access to and the quality of education have been severely compromised, but also, young people are one of the most impacted groups by the contraction of the job market. In addition, the current economic crisis exacerbated an upward trend in percentage of youths (15-24 years old) not in education, employment, or training (NEET) that was already present before the pandemic, jumping from 18.1% in 2019 to 19% in 2020.
In Milan, Italy’s wealthiest city, COVID-19 brought an increase in youth unemployment to 22%, compared to 5.7% for the whole population. This creates a double threat: on the one hand, young people do not have the same access to the services, such as quality education and training programmes, that build their skills for future employability as before; on the other hand, the job market is becoming increasingly competitive and difficult to enter.
UPSHIFT – A Way to Reimagine Education
UPSHIFT is UNICEF’s flagship initiative of skills building: a social entrepreneurship programme that supports and empowers adolescents and youth from disadvantaged backgrounds to become a force for positive social and environmental change. By equipping them with 21st century skills and abilities to transform local problems into opportunities to create innovative solutions, UPSHIFT contributes to their social and economic inclusion. UPSHIFT, which is implemented within phase III of the preparatory action for the European Child Guarantee, is aligned with two international initiatives for the employability of young people: Sustainable Development Goal 4 of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda and the New Skills Agenda for Europe of the European Commission. In addition, UPSHIFT’s innovative approach has been identified as one of the models recommended by Generation Unlimited, a global partnership that seeks to ensure that all young people are prepared for their transition to work.
In Italy, UNICEF, in partnership with Junior Achievement (JA) Italy, implements the UPSHIFT programme in both upper secondary schools in disadvantaged areas and in catch-up schools where unaccompanied minors and young migrants and refugees are enrolled, but also in non-formal education settings. UPSHIFT in Italy is articulated in three phases:
- Innovation and Creativity Camp or Crescere che Impresa. The Camp (8 hours) is an event in which participants are faced with a social issue, to which they need to find an innovative and sustainable solution, with the support of trainers and mentors from the business community. Crescere che Impresa (6 hours) is an introductory course on basic entrepreneurship education.
- Ideas in Action. A 6-module programme during which students learn to understand the communities they live in, analyse problems and transform them in opportunities and business ideas. At the end of the Ideas in Action phase, Upshifters present their ideas in front of a jury panel composed by business volunteers and other relevant local stakeholders.
- Incubation phase. A 3-month programme which combines training workshops, mentorship, provision of materials and seed funding to the participants, who are supported in further developing their ideas (prototyping, analysis of the customer journey, development of business plans and marketing, etc.).
A Testimony from Francesca, Junior Achievement Italy trainer
For the 2020-2021 academic year, UPSHIFT in Italy reached a total of 1530 students across three cities: Rome, Milan, and Palermo. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the programme faced a number of challenges and underwent significant readaptations, first of which was a digitalisation process towards a fully online format to guarantee the continuation of all activities. However, “restrictions are also an opportunity to test new learning methods,” says Francesca, echoing the idea that, as humans, we should never waste a crisis. Francesca is programme manager for Junior Achievement (JA) Italy, and since 2018 she has been collaborating with UNICEF to implement UPSHIFT in the peripheral areas of Milan.
“Although the skills that we try to build in young participants are the ability to analyse problems and recognise opportunities, to use creativity, to evaluate the impact of activities, identify risks, and create an action plan,” says Francesca, “we also try to transmit other relevant teachings. Most importantly, these are innovation, entrepreneurship, believing in your abilities, and turning problems into solutions that take into consideration the needs of your community”.
“The skills that participants gain are very useful to become active members of a company or organisation and are fundamental to become future workers that will create value”, Francesca continues. “At the beginning of the programme, the young participants are a bit sceptical because they are confronted with something completely new and unknown, but they soon understand that they need to get involved, not as students, but as youth and adolescents. I am always surprised to see the optimism and willpower that they display”.
“Many were frustrated by the fact that they lost a year of school,” continues Francesca, “and many created innovative ideas aimed at improving their situation in education, with initiatives to make remote learning better. I saw a lot of willingness to have a voice and be heard, especially as they are the ones experiencing the challenges of education during the pandemic on their own skin – so they feel responsible for helping to overcome the challenges. I think that now they feel stronger and more optimistic, and especially more confident to participate in the future.”
UNICEF is grateful to its donors, the European Commission and the industrial company Hydro, as well as UNICEF’s Italian and Norwegian National Committees, and recognises and thanks the work of JA Italy, Tree, and Mygrants, its implementing partners, for allowing it to make UPSHIFT a reality for hundreds of adolescents from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, the challenges brought by COVID-19 entail a significant increase in needs, which UNICEF is unable to meet with current funding levels. This means that UNICEF may not be able to implement the programme to complement and support the work for post-pandemic recovery in Italy – a work much needed even before the impacts of COVID-19 further decreased the already slim chances of youths to enter the job market. Therefore, additional funds are urgently needed in order to continue activities during the next academic year (2021-2022).
While talent is universal, opportunity is not. UNICEF will continue to support national governments, thanks to its donors, to help mobilising the needed resources to keep increasing opportunities for every child. Yet, UPSHIFT needs to expand its financial capacity: with ulterior support, adolescents and young people in Italy will have the skills and confidence they need to continue their education and transit into decent and fair employment, thus becoming active changemakers of their future.