International Youth Day – Introducing the series “Spotlight on Youth”

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Evaluation continues to play an ever more important part in the public and private sectors, with a particularly critical role in providing learning and accountability for sustainable development initiatives.  With greater responsibilities across a wider range of activities, evaluation has steadily taken on a more technically-demanding and academic character.  

All these developments have left demand for quality evaluators far outstripping the supply.  In principle, this should mean a robust and accessible job market for graduates.  In this blog series, Spotlight on Youth, we will hear from young professionals about the challenges and opportunities in the industry: their experiences of transitioning from university, entry into the workforce, finding a niche and building up a portfolio of work, among other issues.  

By way of a preview, a few general themes emerge: practitioners come from a wide range of academic disciplines and professional backgrounds; new entrants often commenced evaluation as a smaller part of a different job; and, as evaluators, much of their employment has come in the form of short-term contracts.  

1. How do young practitioners get started in the field of evaluation?

Many of the young evaluators interviewed for this post said that  their introduction to the field was actually a minor part of their work on another subject.  Usually due to their newfound interest in monitoring and evaluation (M&E), they further pursued it, and the field organically became their professional focus.  We could think of this as the individual-level result of the macro trend that has seen evaluation, and expectations of evaluation, spread throughout institutions.  Organisations that may, in the past, have had limited capacity and relatively isolated evaluation offices are making a more concerted effort to integrate M&E throughout their work.  Independent Evaluation Offices are increasing the visibility and awareness of their activities, and increasingly involving their colleagues.  This provides those already working in those institutions an opportunity to learn about and adopt M&E practices.  

2. How would young evaluators characterize the nature of their work?

Naturally, this familiar story of slipping into evaluation, almost by accident, creates problems for prospective evaluators looking for a clear career path.  This leads to another key consideration for new evaluators: job security.  A consistent theme in conversation with young evaluators is the short-term nature of many available contracts and the absence of longer-term arrangements.  While this has become a critical issue for many during this period of general economic difficulty inflicted by the global pandemic, most interviewed young professionals stressed that the custom has a long history.  In the blog series, we will hear from some young evaluators with many consultancies under their belt and who give us a clearer idea of a career spent competing for contracts.  

Is this the case for all evaluators? The series will also investigate whether there is a  generational divide in the profession, and what effect it may have on job type and security.  In general, those we spoke to suggested that the part-time nature of many evaluation projects favours those who already have secure employment, indirectly penalising young professionals.  

3. What are young evaluators’ academic backgrounds?

Another key consideration for people looking to get into evaluation is what practitioners studied at university, and what they considered most useful.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a vast diversity of academic backgrounds among evaluators, although a significant number listed social science and policy as their focus in tertiary education. 

Did these prove useful? M&E is a technical, jargon-heavy profession, often requiring both qualitative and quantitative analysis skills, and steep learning curves seem to apply to all new entrants.  In that sense, little in academia can prepare students for a career in evaluation beyond basic graduate-level skills. However,  it is worth pointing out that aspects of cutting-edge evaluation are increasingly present in various parts of social science.  Notably, the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Professors Michael Kremer, Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo largely for their work in introducing randomised controlled trials to a broad swathe of economic research.

In all the areas we discussed – preparing for evaluation in university, entering the field, and carving out a career – there was a general sense that the career path was uncertain.  This is one reason why initiatives like the European Evaluation Society’s own yEES group for young and emerging evaluators (Thematic Working Group 5) is so important.  By connecting with colleagues and those in a similar position, some of the concerns can be allayed.  The EES and its partners work to cultivate a community of practice capable of supporting evaluation professionals, providing advice and resources and building a network to supply more opportunities.   EES has also co-founded the p2p + Career for Emerging Evaluators initiative with IDEAS Emerging Evaluators, and EvalYouth. These are online meetings where young and emerging evaluation professionals can discuss career challenges and opportunities.  clarify doubts and answer specific questions posed by participants about their evaluation career, basic M&E concepts, or professionals challenges. It is a demand-driven session not training or workshop.  During the sessions, facilitators create a safe space, where emerging evaluators exchange questions and answers, helping each other think through their career path.