DAVOS, Switzerland – Training the youth for the challenges of a fast-changing world has to be central to any strategy to rebuild the job market following a financial crisis that's wiped out millions of middle-class jobs over the past five years.
That was the central conclusion that emerged from the annual Associated Press debate at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss village of Davos, which focused on the need to build up skills for a changing economy.
"We need a young labor force," IMF Deputy Managing Director Min Zhu said. "Government doesn't pay enough attention to training and retraining."
Amid concerns that the rich world is faced with a lost generation of young people with dismal job prospects, panelists suggested other ideas in the debate that was moderated by the AP's senior managing editor for U.S. news, Michael Oreskes. Proposals included the creation of "green" jobs to save the planet from climate catastrophe and lowering the costs of hiring first-time workers.
The International Labor Organization estimates that young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults, and that worldwide around 75 million youths aged between 15 and 24 are looking for work. This youth employment crisis, it says, threatens to scar "the very fabric of our societies."
Eric Cantor, a Republican Congressman from Virginia, said training is needed to give workers the tools they need for the "new labor force."
"America is a huge catalyst for growth," he said. "Workers need to be trained to get into those jobs."
He warned, however, against piling more government money on schools without coming up with a "better way" to create new skills.
An Associated Press analysis of employment data from 20 countries found that millions of mid-skill, mid-pay jobs have already disappeared over the past five years — jobs that form the backbone of the middle class in developed countries.
That experience has left a growing number of technology experts and economists pondering whether middle-class jobs will return when the global economy recovers, or whether they have been lost forever.
Italian Finance Minister Vittorio Grilli, also at the debate, argued that technology doesn't have to be the enemy, and "will provide a second wind to advanced economies."
Young people in the job market don't all feel they're getting education that fits today's demand.
"The quality of courses is not up to standard at all," said Lucy Nicholls, a 22-year-old fashion graduate in London. She was speaking Friday in an online "hangout" as part of AP's Class of 2012, an exploration of Europe's financial crisis through the eyes of young graduates facing the worst downturn the continent has seen since the end of World War II.
Emerging markets may offer some ideas to the developed world in its new jobs conundrum.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Ali Babacan, whose country has generated 4.6 million jobs over the past five years, credited the performance on a host of innovative policies, such as paying the wages of some young people when they first enter the workforce.
"The biggest problem is the cost of entry to the job market," he said. "If an employer thinks it is less expensive to hire, then employment becomes easier."
Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz suggested focusing on "green, renewable jobs" to help solve the youth unemployment crisis as well as the planet.
In Europe, where youth unemployment is a huge issue, particularly in Greece and Spain where the rate stands at over 50 percent, the job market overhaul will not be easy and certainly won't be fast.
"It's a slow process and unfortunately it's going to be a painful one," Italy's Grilli said. "It involves people changing their lives."