Who is responsible for youth unemployment? Ma Wanhua, PhD, of Peking University, posed this question at a recent regional seminar on the employability of university graduates.
Interns Jiratatip Phumitharanon, left, and Aphapan Ovathitsakul, centre, are each 21 years old and are studying at Chulalongkorn University in their fourth year where they are majoring in political science. Supervisor Benjamin Vergel De Dios, right, is from the Philippines. All three work with the Asia-Pacific Programme of Educational Innovation for Development unit at Unesco Bangkok. SIRISAK CHAIYASOOK/UNESCO
"If I tell you the number of unemployed graduates in China, you'll be shocked," she said.
"More than 2 million graduates are unemployed every year," she added.
The Philippines registered 2.85 million jobless Filipinos in 2009, noted a report from the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organisation Regional Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology (Seameo Innotech).
Data from the Philippines National Statistics Office reveal that the number of unemployed college graduates is rising and is even higher than the number of unemployed elementary school graduates and high school dropouts.
"Higher education is regarded as a key to improving the quality of life. Parents want to have at least one graduate in the family and they would sell their last carabao (water buffalo) to make that happen," Ethel Valenzuela, PhD, of Seameo Innotech said at the seminar.
The regional seminar on the employability of university graduates was co-organised by Unesco Bangkok and the Institute for Educational Planning, Paris, to present research findings on graduate employability.
Unesco Bangkok director Gwang-Jo Kim, PhD, highlighted the need to prepare young people for a changing world.
"We're living in a time of rapid technology and labour market changes. Employers and the industrial sector need people with creative and higher-order thinking skills.
"The young generations, especially those who enter the job market for the first time, have to keep pace with these changes," he said.
So who is responsible for youth unemployment?
The answer to Dr Wanhua's question lies in the distinction between employability and employment.
Employability refers specifically to job seekers' attributes and skills that will persuade employers to offer them a job.
This includes what researchers classify as the "++ factors", such as the ability to think outside the box, to be creative, to solve problems, to speak a second language, and to work within a team, and independently.
Employment, on the other hand, is the actual hiring of a person to perform an occupation.
New graduate Patcharasorn Kanitthasoontorn said preparing young people to be employable should begin at the secondary school level, if not earlier.
"There was minimal guidance and advice from my family and teachers on my career focus," said the 24-year-old Thai. "And I've been lost for years until recently.
"Students should receive career guidance to help them realise their potential as early as possible. They can then decide their career possibilities and prepare themselves to excel in areas that suit them best."
Patcharasorn completed his bachelor's degree in library and information science at one of the public universities in Bangkok.
He realised that he did not like his subject choice but stayed on because he did not want to waste the year.
"It was as if I were dying a slow death alone in the darkness. I struggled and suffered," he said.
Patcharasorn is now an officer at a bank. "It took a lot of effort for me to relearn and acquire skills to compete successfully for the job.
"With no one to coach and guide me, I had to be my own teacher and career counsellor. But it has taken me years of hard work and pain," he said.
In Thailand, many students share Patcharasorn's experiences. They receive training in areas in which they have no interest in pursuing as a career, which adversely affects their career opportunities.
A World Bank report revealed student enrolment in higher education institutions in Thailand increased from 1.9 million students in 2001, to 2.4 million in 2006. Of 820,000 unemployed people in 2008, 200,000 held a bachelor's degree, according to Rangsit University data.
Rojana Manowalailao is a media and communications officer at Unesco Bangkok. She has a masters degree in Communication from the University of Missouri-Columbia, US, and a masters in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (Tefl) from Thammasat University. You may contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.