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Youth transitions in the midst of pandemic: what role for apprenticeships in Mexico?

By Ellen Vanderhoven

“To kill the virus, we have to kill the economy, because the economy is about social interactions, which is exactly what we don’t want.”

Philippe Martin, Professor of Economics, Sciences Po Paris

“What does it matter if we survive COVID-19 if afterward we die of hunger?”

Otilio Cruz, small business owner, Monterrey

These two quotations summarise the tensions inherent in the global response to the COVID-19 outbreak, with public health being pitted against economic stability in a series of unprecedented, and potentially deadly, policy decisions. Mexico risks being one of the countries most impacted by lasting crisis, on the one hand facing the highest COVID case-fatality rates in the world and on the other managing pre-pandemic economic contraction combined with a heavy dependence on oil, tourism and American trade, all of which have suffered significantly in the past year. As the ILO has highlighted: “The crisis [instigated by the pandemic] is likely to be particularly severe for youth across three dimensions: (1) disruptions to education, training and work-based learning; (2) increased difficulties for young jobseekers and new labour market entrants; and (3) job and income losses, along with deteriorating quality of employment”. In recent years, dual apprenticeships have been touted as a solution to youth unemployment and fractured school-to-work transitions, offering young people greater tools with which to navigate the uncertainty of recession. However, in an economic crisis predicted to far outstrip the 1994 ‘Tequila Crisis’ and the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, can policy instruments intended to counteract the impacts of recession – such as the Mexican Model of Dual Apprenticeships (MMFD) – be expected to work? Or is the COVID recession ‘too big’ and too exceptional for existing (education) policy solutions? My doctoral research approaches these questions by following one cohort of young apprentices as they graduate from the MMFD into a vastly altered and unequal economic, social and health landscape, and seeks to understand what role apprenticeship participation plays in their transition into work, further education and adulthood.

While evidence from past recessions underscores that young people will be hardest hit, it does not necessarily provide a roadmap for how policy can approach this “multidimensional crisis”, which is characterised by unprecedented simultaneous demand and supply shocks. Where policy remedies are suggested, they are extraordinarily far-reaching, require significant public investment and involve comprehensive coordination across education, labour market policy, welfare provision and physical and mental health. Thus far, coordinated public investment on this scale is yet to be seen in Mexico, where pre-existing economic and health difficulties, corruption and a lack of coherent political leadership on the issue of COVID present serious obstacles.

Across the TVET sector, disruptions to learning (work-based or otherwise) have been significant throughout the pandemic, with middle and low income countries harder hit due to difficulties in substituting learning online. MMFD students interviewed in late 2020 reported total or partial suspension of their training in school and the workplace. Those that were still receiving educational scholarships (President Lopez Obrador cut MMFD scholarships last year, which in some cases had been partially replaced by a universal post-secondary scholarship) had their payments stopped. Throughout this process, communication with students was sparse and final-year students were expected to graduate as normal despite having lost their final months of training and income. Therefore, the ability of apprenticeship participation to assist young people in navigating crisis is hampered by disruptions to apprenticeships themselves.

A line of 13 people: a mix of older male employers wearing suits, young apprentices smiling and two researchers, including the author.
Apprentices and employers in Estado de Mexico

There is also concern about how the COVID recession will be particularly marked by social inequalities and the reversal of social justice gains along lines of race, class and gender. Globally, women and girls are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, forced to abandon employment and education to take on caring responsibilities in the home, the economic and social effects of which could stay with them for many years to come. In Mexico, this is compounded by high rates of domestic violence and an overrepresentation of women among informal workers, who are falling through wide gaps in Mexico’s social security programmes. Even in formal employment, precarious workers have faced the choice of keeping their jobs or risking unemployment to challenge large corporations who kept factories open through the pandemic. Indigenous communities meanwhile are often isolated from health information and are particularly vulnerable to any fall in tourism. For many of the apprentices that I work with, MMFD participation was their route away from so-called ‘low skill’ or informal employment and intergenerational precarity into an integrated position in the technical working and middle classes. Given the disruption to their crucial post-education transitions caused by COVID, this goal of upward social mobility seems in doubt.

On a national scale, many of these inequalities are exacerbated by President Lopez Obrador’s (nicknamed AMLO) inaction on the issue of gender-based violence and wide-ranging cuts to healthcare and the civil service, despite the progressive platform on which he ran in 2018. While AMLO has claimed that his austerity measures and avoidance of private sector bailouts are intended to prevent the proliferation of neoliberal responses that deepen inequality and corruption, his populist rhetoric is accompanied by a major recentralisation of power, concerning in a country with a recent history of authoritarianism. There is a risk that the COVID crisis will be mobilised as means to bypass democratic processes and pursue AMLO’s controversial political agenda in the aftermath of a major shock, ironically a different but no less worrying form of the ‘shock doctrine’ principles he appears to criticise. Nonetheless, following this week’s lukewarm midterm election results, AMLO’s government finds itself without the two thirds majority needed for constitutional reform and facing a strengthened opposition.

Although it is not possible to fully predict how this recession will unravel or what tools are best to tackle it, existing evidence suggests that sustained public investment, recognition of the transformations to come and attention to a range of social inequalities will be key. Evidence also suggests that, so far, these have not been central tenets of the Mexican government’s response. Indeed, if an effective policy response to this ‘multidimensional crisis’ exists, it seems unlikely to be pursued in Mexico. Graduate apprentices have been left with a disrupted education, widening inequalities and intense competition for lower-quality work, even without considering the health impacts of the pandemic on apprentices and their families. Given this, apprenticeship participation seems something of a feeble ‘toolkit’ with which to face the post-COVID world. Graduates may find themselves marginally more equipped than their school-based peers who lack work experience and industry connections, but ultimately, if work is available, employers will be looking for the safe bet of age, experience, high productivity and low investment. It is also possible that in the future, apprenticeship places will be significantly reduced as employers – who currently pay a fee to host students – look to reduce their expenditure and their workforce, preventing future generations from reaping any benefits the programme may offer and undermining the growing reputation of the programme. The impacts of COVID for this generation of apprentices are likely to be felt for years, if not decades to come.

Many thanks to our contributor, Ellen Vanderhoven, who can be contacted via her member profile page or on Twitter.

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