Latinamerica Press / September 21, 1995
By Larry Luxner
MENDOZA, 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 innovative, UNDP-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 18.6% 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.
"The Programa de Apoyo a la Reconversión Productiva (National Program for Labor Reconversion) is an umbrella organization within the Ministry of Economy. It runs four projects, the most important of which is Proyecto Joven," explains Montoya, who oversees 90 people at the central office in Buenos Aires, and another 90 in two dozen regional offices throughout Argentina.
"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. "We abandoned the centralized economic planning system to give specific solutions to business, and to unite those demands with the needs of poor kids." He added that, given a 1975-83 baby boom -- which is already beginning to swell the job market -- the challenge will grow even tougher.
"From 1995 until the year 2010, pressure on young people will be on the rise," he said. "For this reason we must prepare, and the best preparation is training."
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. On April 21, 1995, 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.
"Kids looking for work come to this office," says Hugo Turrós, a program official in Mendoza. "We tell them all about Proyecto Joven, and then we interview them. We give them accreditation, and with this card, they can choose any course they want. They pay absolutely nothing."
Turrós 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, the UNDP says 60% of Proyecto Joven's graduates nationwide have found jobs so far.
"It is not the typical government project," observes Fernando Zumbado, UNDP's regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean in a prepared statement. "It is truly decentralized, and all training will be done by private institutions, selected through a rigorous process of competitive bidding."
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 United Nations Development Program.
"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.
"Through the UNDP, we have been able to create an administration that can adequately make thousands of small payments while training thousands of people," Montoya said. "Above all, it has helped us gain investor confidence. If a businessman knows that the UNDP is involved, he takes it more seriously."
Currently, Proyecto Joven operates in all of Argentina's 23 provinces, though the program is strongest in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area, Buenos Aires province, Córdoba, Mendoza, Santa Fe and Tucumán.
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 has not succeeded in cracking important export markets in the United States and Western Europe.
"We used to produce for a domestic market that consumed 75 liters of wine per-capita," he said. "This has shrunk to less than 40 liters. The result of this drop in activity has provoked an exodus of many rural people to the Mendoza metropolitan area, and has caused social disorganization."
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 San Rafael, a city about 230 kilometers 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. After these houses are built, many of these people will continue working for the company on other projects."
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."