The premise is relatively simple: 75 million youth in the world are unemployed, and while macroeconomic factors take some of the blame for insufficient job creation, many youth remain incapable of taking advantage of existing job vacancies due to a lack of desired skills.

This global skills mismatch might be at least in part solved by discovering what skills employers want, and transforming curricula and educational systems to ensure that students are acquiring these desirable skills. R4D’s Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement (ISESE) project attempts to address this issue.

As it turns out, the solution may not be as straightforward as matching curricula to employer demands.

As part of the ISESE project, R4D gathered with education and skills development specialists drawn from global multilateral development banks, international foundations and IGOs, business and technology leaders, policymakers, and academia to review the project’s initial findings. While they debated many ideas, all agreed on at least one thing: a sustainable solution to youth unemployment must take into account a rapidly transforming global economy that is surely posing new demands today, but just as surely will be posing a whole new set of demands tomorrow.

Jeffrey Avina, leader of Microsoft’s corporate social responsibility programs in the Middle East and Africa, noted that most of the jobs that youth will be going for in 10 or 20 years don’t even exist yet. In order to address unemployment, we must arm youth with a set of skills that is adaptable as their employment opportunities continue to transform in response to the global economy.

While the ISESE research premise may have in part been challenged in Bellagio, some key takeaways from the review meeting have suggested that the demands of today and demands of the future can be met if we slightly alter our perception of “skills for employment” to consider the kinds of skills we mean when we talk about equipping youth with the means for success.

  • Employment and employability: related, but not the same. If a young man completes a training course on car mechanics, he may be able to get a job in a repair shop, effectively creating employment. However, if that repair shop goes out of business, and there are no other opportunities for him in the same field in his area, that skill is not transferrable to another job. Given that we expect economies to continue to shift and transform in unexpected ways, preparing students for specific jobs feels less dependable than ever as a way to increase youth employment. More effective would be an education and training system that provides students with transferrable or entrepreneurial skills to sustainable youth employability.
  • Non-cognitive skills are as important as cognitive and technical skills – if not more. While the basic 3R’s – reading, writing, and arithmetic – are undeniably critical, so are ’soft’ or ’life’ skills such as leadership, communication, teamwork, flexibility, problem solving, and time management. In fact, one ISESE background study indicates that in the informal economy across both Africa and Asia regions, non-cognitive skills may be more highly valued than cognitive or technical/vocational skills. Considering that in some countries in the developing world the informal economy can account for up to 50 percent of national GDP and up to two-thirds of working adults are informally self-employed, we cannot ignore that the informal sector values these non-cognitive skills over all others is critical.
  • Learning how to learn is a critical outcome of education. Above and beyond any specific skill, employers across formal and informal sectors in Africa and Asia alike are looking to hire employees with the ability to learn. The ability to learn is not a skill that can be dictated by a teacher and repeated by a student in an exam book. Rather, the ability to learn is honed through the learning process itself, which begs the question of how to enhance pedagogy in a way that shapes a student’s ability to receive, process, and apply new information, and also his or her awareness of this process and how to activate it in new and different contexts.

These takeaways illuminate an important aspect of the skills question that may have been overlooked in the quest for a quick and easy answer to the challenge of youth unemployment: while education for employment should be demand-driven, “demand” is not a fixed variable. Mamadou Ndoye, former Minister of Basic Education in Senegal, noted at the ISESE review meeting that responding to demand means considering a dynamic kind of demand, one that includes demands not only of employers, but of the individuals, families, and communities implicated in the equation, as well as the local and national plans for development, and an ever-changing global economy.

In order to keep up with these varied demands, our concept of skills for employment must be transformed. While the 3 R’s and indeed technical/vocational skills remain important, it is the non-cognitive skills that enable workers to learn and adapt these basic skills to different contexts.

The challenge becomes figuring out how to teach these non-cognitive skills. While these types of skills are difficult to teach in the traditional sense of the word, and even more difficult to quantify and assess, they are learned through the process of learning – indicating that this process is as important as the subject matter itself.

This idea has huge implications for the central question of the ISESE project: how can we improve education to increase youth employment in the developing world? Indeed, the solution may not be introducing a set of desirable employment skills into existing curricula, but perhaps transforming the learning system itself. It involves both rethinking pedagogy with an eye to developing a student’s capacity for critical thinking and learning, and as Ndoye notes, rethinking our idea of the learning process to include lifelong learning, self-learning, and learning how to adapt to the global environment.

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