Every Day Should be “World Youth Skills Day”

Wednesday, July 15, marks the first World Youth Skills Day proclaimed by United Nations in December 2014. Amidst a global youth unemployment crisis that is disrupting and dragging down advanced, emerging, and developing economies alike, there has never been a more important time to focus on youth skills. While youth joblessness lingers at record levels from Spain to South Africa, Egypt to El Salvador, and most countries in between, it is increasingly recognized that the crisis is in no small part due to a gap or a mismatch between what the market demands and what today’s young workers offer. Many available jobs sit open, waiting for a candidate with the necessary skills and competencies to come fill them.

A Looming Skills Gap

Increasingly, we recognize that preparing the labor supply means understanding what the market demands—what sectors are growing, what kind of jobs are and will be created, and what competencies and skills are needed. In a CSIS report released earlier this year, I explored workforce issues more broadly and found the skills gap to be one of the more pressing challenges in the employment sector today. No region of the world seems to have escaped the human capital loss, wasted resources, lower earnings, or higher employee turnover associated with the skills dilemma. Wealthier, advanced economies are seeing higher incidence of “overeducation” versus “undereducation,” particularly among young women. Across Europe, roughly a quarter of youth remain unemployed, yet vacancies are on the rise, and one study shows between 25 and 45 percent of workers are either over- or underqualified for their jobs. Similarly, McKinsey’s “education to employment” survey in Europe, found that while nearly three-quarters of education providers believed their graduates were prepared for work, only little more than a third of students and employers agreed.

In Southeast Asia, there are increasing higher skills jobs opening to young people, but workers are not qualified or do not have the training necessary to succeed in these positions. By 2025, it is estimated that the higher skills mismatch (ratio of underqualified workers to higher skill employment) will be 10 percent in Vietnam, 25 percent in the Philippines, and a staggering 65 percent in Indonesia. Un- and underemployment is also highly problematic in emerging economies whose workforce is ill-prepared as they become progressively more service oriented. The International Labor Organization (ILO) survey across 27 low- and middle-income countries worldwide found only 47 percent of employees were considered well matched, with 37 percent undereducated and 16 percent overeducated. In the African Economic Outlook’s survey of experts in 37 countries, 41 percent said a general lack of skills among job seekers was a top constraint, and 54 percent identified the skills mismatch as a key obstacle for youth trying to enter the workforce.

What Can Be Done: Bad News, Good News

The bad news is that there is no single, easy, or immediate solution. Moreover, what works in Ghana may not work in Greece. The good news is that more awareness of the skills predicament is bringing more urgency, more investment, and to a certain degree, more learning toward what is needed for more strategic and effective approaches. To start, gaining a better understanding of skills gaps and mismatches is critical. This requires better assessment of labor markets and employer needs of today and in the future and taking action to better ensure the skills being taught align and respond to such demands. Employers are shouting from rooftops about the need for “soft skills” such as teamwork, critical thinking, communication or time management. However, there is a lack of global consensus on what these are (despite worthy efforts by many, including recently USAID, FHI360, and Childtrends ), the best way to teach them, and how to measure, recognize, or demonstrate you have them. “Micro-credentialing” may be in vogue, but will it translate for the masses?

Just as there needs to be increased investment in skills data and assessment, there must be more investment in rigorous research within and across countries, regions, and varying contexts to determine what interventions work and what don’t in terms of impact, cost-benefits, and being worthy of taking to scale. In this regard, a valuable new paper from Columbia University’s Christopher Blattman and the World Bank’s Laura Ralston critically examines skills and entrepreneurship training programs in fragile and poor environments. At the same time, the evaluation of organizations such as Educate! (disclosure, I sit on its board) are proving that experiential models that translate entrepreneurial and other noncognitive skills to younger youth can result in higher incomes or more successful small businesses.

More robust connections between the private sector and educators are needed, including having input into curriculum and teaching methods (integrating applied, “hands-on” methods), as well as playing a role in its delivery and creating more apprenticeship and on-the-job based learning and networking experiences that can create a more direct pathway to fulfilling long-term employment. It is also important to involve youth and students in decisions on what and how they learn. At the same time, despite progress toward universal primary school education among both boys and girls, alarming numbers (an estimated 25 percent) of young people in the developing world—especially young women and poor youth—cannot complete a sentence. This reminds us to focus on quality as much as quantity of schooling and to get back to basics to ensure youth have the foundational reading and numeracy skills upon which job-related competencies can be built.

Certainly there is also a need to add technology to the mix: to seize the opportunities in technology as an education and training delivery mechanism, as well as to improve and scale the uptake among youth of digital skills that will position them for success in new types of jobs and in emerging sectors.

The international community needs to be “in it” for the long term and commit to take action to strengthen the human capital of youth today and potential for tomorrow. The proposed inclusion of skills and lifelong learning in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals should help remind us that every day can be youth skills day.

Nicole Goldin is principal of NRG Advisory, senior associate of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and professorial lecturer at George Washington Elliott School of International Affairs. She is on Twitter @nicolegoldin.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Nicole Goldin

Nicole Goldin

Former Senior Associate (Non-resident), Project on Prosperity and Development