The Miami Herald / July 26, 1995
By Larry Luxner
MENDOZA, Argentina -- Under a broiling 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 innovative, United Nations-supported 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 miracle is hardly anywhere in evidence. Despite President Carlos Menem's victory over runaway inflation and his 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 three years ago, the country's unemployment rate had always hovered between four and six percent; it now stands at 12.8% and growing.
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 Petrolíferos 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. But the root causes of Argentina's unemployment crisis go far deeper than that.
"It's not only the privatizations," says Santiago Montoya, the 34-year-old 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."
Montoya should know. An economist by profession, he formed part of the Menem team that encouraged those changes in the first place. Now his job is to reduce unemployment while providing young people with professional training and internships for the jobs private industry is likely to require, now and in the future.
"With the transformation of the Argentine economy, we began designing a program driven by demand," said Montoya, a former newspaper columnist for La Voz de Córdoba. whose agency employs 180 people in Buenos Aires and 23 other cities. "We abandoned the centralized economic planning system to give specific solutions to business, and to unite those demands with the needs of poor kids."
Law 93-024, which authorized the creation of Proyecto Joven, 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. In April, UNDP and the Argentine government approved a $195 million program to train 59,000 youths by the end of 1995 and another 40,000 by the end of 1996. Phase II will train an additional 100,000 workers by 1998; both phases of the program are funded entirely by a loan from the Inter-American Development Bank.
The cost of Proyecto Joven over its four-year life span works out to $1,546 per beneficiary, though individual youths pay nothing for the courses themselves. In fact, those 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.
Hugo Turrós, a program official in Mendoza, says the average age of participants is 25, though anyone over 16 is eligible. At the moment, Proyecto Joven's Mendoza branch offers 70 courses on everything from carpentry to telecommunications. And although the primary objective is training, not job creation, about 60% of Proyecto Joven's graduates nationwide have found jobs so far.
To date, more than 2,500 companies including IBM, Telefónica de Argentina, Colgate-Palmolive, Microsoft, Siemens and the Caesar Park Hotel have participated in Proyecto Joven, either through donations 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."
The massive project would never have gotten off the ground, however, without the involvement of the UNDP.
"The IDB wouldn't give us credit unless we had a successful pilot program, but we couldn't have a program without the money," Montoya recalled. "We were stuck in this vicious circle until the UNDP stepped in. Their support has been absolutely fundamental."
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. "Above all," said Montoya, "it has helped us gain investor confidence. If a businessman knows that the UNDP is involved, he takes it more seriously."
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, says grape cultivation is by far the region's biggest industry. But people are drinking less these days, and unlike Chile -- just over the mountains -- Argentina hasn't succeeded in cracking important export markets in the United States and Western Europe.
Estrella, himself a former sociologist and part-time vintner, 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 nearby San Rafael. 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."
Yet Juan López, 24, and his younger brother, 22-year-old Horacio, chose a different route. The two young men -- hardened from a life of poverty and neglect -- recently finished a course in telephone installation, and have already landed jobs with Sintelar, a subcontractor for Telefónica de Argentina.
"We didn't pick carpentry because there are lots of carpenters and not much work," Juan explained. "We had to look for something that offered job possibilities, so we picked the phone company. There's a lot of work and a lot of money to be made. But without Proyecto Joven we wouldn't have got the training."