Empowerment or Disempowerment? A Review of Youth Training Schemes for Non-Engaged Young People in Hong Hong

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INTRODUCTION

Jarring economic, labor market, and workplace transformations on a global scale have marked the past two decades. Public and academic discussions about these changes are dominated by themes such as the end of work, downsizing, and economic insecurity. As a result, there is mounting concern about the marginalization of disadvantaged groups in the labor market and how economic polarization is threatening social cohesion of many nations. Echoing this concern, with an emphasis on youth, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Requests for reprints should be sent to Steven S. Y. Ngai, Department of Social Work, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, NT, Hong Kong. E-mail: syngai@cuhk.edu.hk

Development (OECD) observed in its July 1996 Employment Outlook that the current economic and social state of many young people falls far short of what is desirable (OECD, 1996). Indeed, in many industrialized countries, youth unemployment rates rose as high as 20 to 40% (Lowe & Krahn, 1999). Youth unemployment is undoubtedly becoming a global concern.

This paper focuses on the school-to-work experiences of "non-engaged youth" aged 15-24 who do not participate in education, training, and employment (Shek & Lee, 2004). Based on data from focus group interviews with 50 non-engaged young people in Hong Kong, it examines how these young people are being systematically propelled to the edges of conventional pathways to adulthood, and assesses the efficacy of governmental training schemes that aim to develop employability as a strategy for engaging this population. The paper concludes by outlining prospects for future policy development, focusing on gaps and weaknesses in current provision and practice. It is suggested that effective guidance for non-engaged young people must pay attention to the social context of the individual. Assumptions behind the government's individualistic lifelong learning policy are called into question.

Emergence of Non-engaged Youth

The emergence of non-engaged youth was identified by Williamson (1997), who based his research on the experiences of young people in south and mid-Glamorgan, the latter being one of the poorest regions in Britain. Although perhaps most insightful when dealing with those young people who are most clearly socially excluded, this notion can also provide an informative view of some of the problems that many young people are facing today.

As many commentators note (see e.g., OECD, 1996; Coyle, 1999), the process of globalization, the rate of technological change, the convergence of information and communication technologies, and major changes in government policies are all leading to the development of a "weightless" economy, to rapidly growing skill requirements, and to what some call the "knowledge economy." Certainly, the labor market is tilting toward extensive increases in the demand for higher skill levels while the demand for low skill levels is lessening. In this environment, those with low skill levels are at serious risk of very long unemployment spells and possibly near-permanent exclusion from evolving labor market opportunities.

This economic transformation and subsequent structural unemployment have apparently hit young people disproportionately hard, obscuring paths to adult status, identity, and activity (MacDonald, 1997). In sum, young people have been lost in the transition from school to work, with more and more of them not in education, training, and employment. This situation illustrates the extent to which young people have been generally disaffected from both youth training and the "transition infrastructure" (the education system and career guidance service, for instance). Young people are therefore participating in more informal and often illegal arenas precisely because they feel that more formal structures cannot offer them anything.

Non-engaged Youth in Hong Kong

Hong Kong has long been regarded as an international and prosperous city and one of the wealthiest societies in the world in terms of per capita GDP. …