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Youth project trains unskilled Argentines
The Washington Times / June 4, 1996

By Larry Luxner

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Under a broiling February sun, 25-year-old Beatriz Fernández -- donning a yellow hardhat and brown work gloves -- drives wire supports into the ground with specialized tools, then helps other construction workers lay bricks for an hour before heading to the water cooler for a quick break.

The sight of this young mother of two sweating it out with the men would raise macho eyebrows anywhere in Latin America. But then again, the ramshackle barrio known as 25 de Mayo isn't just any neighborhood. Through Proyecto Joven, Argentina's innova-tive job training network, Fernández and her 700 neighbors in this dusty slum outside Mendoza are using recently acquired construction skills to build new homes -- and new lives -- for themselves.

"I like this program because it has permitted me to build my own house," says one resident, Liliana Colucci. "The important thing is that everyone has learned how to work together." Adds Jaime Díaz, president of the barrio association: "This is good for us. It gives our youth hope for the future."

Such hope is desperately needed in neighborhoods like 25 de Mayo, where Argentina's economic reforms are hardly anywhere in evidence. Despite President Carlos Menem's victory over runaway inflation (down from 4,924% in 1989 to 1.6% in 1995), a per-capita income of $7,500 and Menem's linking of the Argentine peso to the U.S. dollar -- a boon to stability and foreign investment -- the number of Argentines without jobs has skyrocketed. Until recently, the country's unemployment rate had always hovered between four and six percent. In the last four years, however, Argentina's official jobless rate has shot up to 16.4%, though many economists think the true number is even higher -- around 20% -- since so many young people have become too discouraged to even look for work.

"The unemployment rate is a bad indication of the job market, because it reflects not the level of employment but the quantity of people who are looking for work," says Osvaldo E. Giordano, Argentina's 35-year-old secretary of employment at the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, which has direct responsibility for Proyecto Joven. "The youth unemployment rate is two or three times higher than the adult rate."

At least part of the problem can be blamed on Menem's massive push toward privatization. Since 1991, when Argentina's decaying, state-owned phone system, Entel, was split into two halves and sold to foreign investors, some of the nation's largest -- and most inefficient -- companies have been successfully privatized: oil giant Yacimientos Petroliferos Fiscales (YPF), national carrier Aerolineas Argentinas and the state shipping company Elma, to name a few.

While the selloffs undoubtedly improve efficiency by slashing bloated payrolls and introducing competition, they also put thousands of workers out on the street.

"We knew this would happen," said Giordano, "because an economy that enters a process of modernization so fast is bound to have problems." But the root causes of Argentina's worsening unemployment crisis go far deeper than that.

"It's not only the privatizations," says Santiago Montoya, the former executive director of Proyecto Joven. "It's the complete transformation of the economy, our opening to foreign markets, the dismantling of state entities, the convertibility of the peso and Argentina's economic integration through Mercosur."

Law 93-024, which authorized Proyecto Joven's creation, won legislative approval in 1993 -- the same year a $6 million pilot project funded by the United Nations Development Program got underway. Since then, it has grown tremendously. On April 21, 1995, UNDP and the Argentine government approved a $195 million program which funded the training of 100,000 youths in 1995-96 and will train another 100,000 by 1998. Of the total 200,000 people targeted, Buenos Aires (including the federal capital and province of the same name) is home to 77,000, followed by Santa Fe (24,400), Córdoba (16,300) and Tucumán (12,000). The effort is funded entirely by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Montoya's successor, Cecilia Navarrete, oversees 90 people at the central office in Buenos Aires, and another 90 in two dozen regional offices throughout Argentina.

"Proyecto Joven isn't a jobs program, it's a training program," she explained in a recent interview at her 10th-floor office in the Ministry of Economy. "The objective isn't that they should get a job immediately, but to increase their possibilities to get a job. We're working with poor kids who have little work experience and low educational levels."

Navarrete, formerly a professor of education administration at the University of Buenos Aires, says that despite Argentina's rising unemployment rate, there's a demand in the private sector for skilled construction, telecommunications and tourist workers.

"At this moment, an average of 30% of participating youths are getting jobs in the same company where they did their apprenticeships," she said. "In some cases, it's 90%."

Types of companies involved in Proyecto Joven vary widely, but can be broken down into agribusiness and forestry (accounting for 23.2% of all courses offered); industry (47.1%) and services (29.7%). Those youths who qualify receive a scholarship of $4 a day to attend class, an amount that doubles to $8 a day once the apprenticeship period begins.

To date, more than 10,000 companies including Telefonica de Argentina, Colgate-Palmolive, Microsoft, Siemens and the Caesar Park Hotel have participated in Proyecto Joven, either through apprenticeships or direct hiring of youths upon graduation. The program has even received warm praise from socialist newspaper Pagina 12, which calls it "an exception to the government's lack of dedication to social problems."

Omar Baleani, production manager at Aeroterra S.A., says his computer-mapping company has trained at least 18 youths through Proyecto Joven: "We're really happy with the project. They come to us to learn CAD (computer-aided design). We see this as a possibility to give them a chance to develop themselves. If this person acquires skills and has the desire, we try to accommodate them."

Proyecto Joven would never have gotten off the ground, however, without the involvement of the United Nations Development Program. While the UNDP doesn't provide direct funding for Proyecto Joven, it does play a crucial role in designing, implementing and monitoring the project's operational aspects, including the establishment of technical, administrative and accounting procedures at the Ministry of Economy.

Currently, Proyecto Joven operates in all of Argentina's 23 provinces, though according to Giordano, certain outlying areas such as Rosario, Bahia Blanca and Comodoro Rivadavia suffer from particularly acute unemployment.

In Mendoza, a city of 1.1 million inhabitants nestled in the foothills of the Andes Mountains, the economic situation is aggravated by the gradual decline of the wine industry. Juan Manuel Estrella, director of Proyecto Joven's regional office in Mendoza, has set up Operación Bodega, an intensive training program in which local youths will be steeped in all aspects of the wine industry, from the operation of bottling lines to quality control of vineyards. This course, which entails two months of study followed by two months of apprenticeship, has won the support of eight large and well-known wineries in San Rafael, a city south of Mendoza. Besides providing jobs, Estrella's goal is to improve the quality of Argentine wines so they can compete on the export market.

Other youths have different interests. Mario Rodríguez, for instance, recently finished a Proyecto Joven course on ecotourism -- a rapidly expanding industry not only in Argentina but around the world.

"I worked as a park guard at Aconcagua [at 3,200 meters South America's tallest mountain] for three months," he said. "It was a very nice experience, both from a work and human point of view. I met people from all over the world, and got to know our country. I know now that I can bring a group of people up there and have confidence in myself."

Adds 22-year-old Silvina Farías of Lujan, who recently completed a construction course and has since organized a Proyecto Joven "alumni club" with eight other friends: "I never had the opportunity to apply what I learned. I knew theory, but doing it is very different than learning it in school."

Estrella said one of the biggest activities in demand in the Mendoza area right now is construction. That's one reason Proyecto Joven selected the house-building project for 25 de Mayo, a neighborhood plagued by alcoholism, drug addiction, single-mother households and unemployment.

"To construct a house, you need to have electricians, carpenters and plumbers," he said, as he watched Beatriz Fernández and her friends lay bricks. "But training is just the first step. Then you have to put into practice what you've learned."

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