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Generation: Helping Hong Kong’s youth discover a different path to success

When Generation, the global youth-employment non-profit founded by McKinsey, was planning its expansion into new geographies, Hong Kong was probably not at the top of its list.

On paper, the city has some of the lowest levels of youth unemployment in the world—by some counts as low as 3 percent and certainly well below the 13 percent global average.

But scratch below the surface and you’ll find a growing gap between the education that young people receive and the skills required to do well today—and in the future.

Employers in the city know this well.

In customer-service roles, for example, it is not uncommon for staff to stay little more than 3 months in entry-level positions, such is the mismatch between the skills and expectations they have and the realities of the role. Applicants have higher-level degrees but lack practical and social skills, such as customer orientation, persistence, teamwork, and taking personal responsibility.

For McKinsey colleagues in Hong Kong, who for more than a decade have provided pro bono consulting to public- and social-sector organizations that serve the city’s youth, it felt like Generation could be part of the solution.

Generation works to train and place learners in high-demand, entry-level jobs, supporting them with the technical, behavioral, and mind-set skills they need to be high performers right from the start, resulting in longer retention and faster speed to promotion.

What excites me about Generation is that it enables young people to rediscover their potential.

“Our office has deep-rooted commitment to supporting young people in Hong Kong,” explains Joe Ngai, managing partner of McKinsey’s Greater China office. “It’s something that really matters to our colleagues. They want as many young people as possible to be able to access the best opportunities.”

Working closely with local business leaders Allen Ha, CEO of AsiaWorld-Expo, a large events venue in the city, and Ming-Wai Lau, who chairs Hong Kong’s Commission on Youth, Joe and a team of colleagues set out to understand how Generation could make a difference.

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Joe Ngai, managing partner of McKinsey’s Greater China Office, shares insights on youth employment in Hong Kong at the launch of Generation X CLAP.

“Allen and Ming-Wai were really excited by the idea and saw a lot of potential,” Joe says. “Ming-Wai even travelled to Washington, DC, to see a Generation program in action.”

McKinsey and Generation began by studying Hong Kong’s youth-employment challenge, to understand the experiences of both employers and young people.

“Young people feel great pressure to perform. There is a deeply rooted societal norm that higher education is the only path to success,” explains Brian Cheng, who leads Generation Hong Kong.

“Our research also found that many recruiters continue to use graduate-education qualifications as a screening criteria, even for entry-level jobs. But the graduates often don’t have the basic skills they need to succeed in the role, such as the ability to handle a difficult customer or colleague. This leads to high staff turnover for employers and dissatisfaction for young people.”

Brian, who has spent the last decade working in higher education, found himself increasingly frustrated at seeing young people with talent being written off because they may not have had the resources or opportunity to secure the higher education that employers in Hong Kong demand.

“What excites me about Generation,” says Brian, “is that it enables young people to rediscover their potential—to find a new, accessible path to realizing their ambitions.”

The report was highlighted at an event in Hong Kong last month to launch Generation X CLAP, a partnership between Generation and CLAP for Youth, an initiative founded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club—which has one of the world’s largest charitable trusts—to address the challenges young people face navigating the Hong Kong job market.

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Kathy (center), speaks at the launch event. She secured the hotel front-desk job she wanted following Generation.

Kathy, 22, is a graduate from the inaugural class. Despite studying for a foundation diploma in hospitality, she found it difficult to secure a hotel front-desk job without higher-education qualifications. Instead, she has had a series of short-term roles, working as a sales assistant in a clothing store and as an office receptionist, without a clear pathway for career advancement.

“I saw Generation as a way to empower myself to start the career that I really want,” Kathy says. “Generation’s training emphasizes not only job-related technical skills but also mind-sets and behaviors,” which can be applied to any future job environment. As a result of the program, I feel more confident when presenting myself to employers.”

The first program in Hong Kong, for customer-service roles in hotels, launched in April with a 5-week boot camp. Its graduates are now taking up placements with partner employers. Globally, 85 percent of Generation graduates are placed in jobs within 90 days, the majority remain employed one year after placement, and they earn two to six times the income they were earning prior to the program.

“We really like the Generation graduates who came to the interview,” explains one Hong Kong hotel manager. “They show not only passion and enthusiasm in joining our hotel but also their performance in the interviews was stronger than a lot of our previous candidates with even higher academic qualifications. We were impressed by the maturity and strong problem-solving skills.”

According to Generation, 98 percent of employers say they would hire graduates of the program again.

We were impressed by the maturity and strong problem-solving skills of Generation graduates.

Alice, another student, illustrates why. “For me, Generation offered access to opportunities that I had never been able to reach before. During the first week of the program, I went to class from 9:00 AM to 4:00 PM, and then went straight to work from 5:00 PM to 11:00 PM. It was normally 1:00 AM when I could go to bed. I did think of giving up, but I remembered the mind-set training on persistence that we covered in class. I decided to show my persistence and make a change for my own future.”

Launched in eight countries since it was founded in 2015, Generation has plans to open in three new geographies in Asia and Europe by the end of 2018. Its graduates number in excess of 20,000 young people globally.