Development of foundational skills for young people: a priority after the COVID-19 pandemic

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Srudents and teacher in a school class Foundational skills such as literacy and numeracy are necessary for individuals to develop other high-demand skills, such as communication, problem-solving, and information analysis. Copyright: Arne Hoel/World Bank

For some years now, workers and employers have been trying to keep up with global trends, such as automation, action against climate change, the digitalization of products and services, and a shrinking and aging labor force. On top of that, the COVID‑19 pandemic brought massive disruption to the workforce, challenging the importance of physical proximity and education business models. High- and middle-income countries are aging, and their labor force is shirking.

In such a context, countries must revamp the skills and productivity of their workforce and be prepared to recruit young, global talent. Consequently, many workers will need to change occupations, be ready to offer their skills in the global labor market, and constantly reinvent their professional career paths. Given these trends, education and training systems must ensure workers have the skills to adapt, learn, and “hit every curve” the labor market throws at them.

Educational attainment is no longer a good proxy for skills development

As these global trends evolve, emerging digital education and employment opportunities promise democratizing access to skills and jobs. But such options are out of reach for millions of youths, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Many young people enter the labor market without the necessary skills to thrive and prosper in an increasingly competitive digital global economy. 

Not even individuals who attain post-secondary education are exempt from having skills gaps. Results from OECD’s 2018 Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) indicate that, on average, university graduates from countries like Turkey, Chile, and Indonesia display similar proficiency levels in numeracy, literacy, and problem-solving skills as upper-secondary graduates in Japan or the Netherlands. Results from Colombia’s SABER PRO assessment, a large-scale competency-based assessment for university graduates, indicate that 25 percent of all the students who completed higher education in 2019 did not have good critical reading skills. Despite having a higher education degree, these graduates will probably not be able to compete for high-productivity, high-pay jobs. Educational attainment is, thus, no longer a good proxy for skills development.

A large majority of youth enter the labor force without sufficient foundational skills

The underlying problem is that education systems do not always ensure students develop a good skill set. Many individuals graduate from secondary education without enough literacy and numeracy skills. These foundational skills are necessary for individuals to develop other higher-order cognitive skills in high demand, such as communication, problem-solving, and information analysis. Available results indicate that between 60 and 75 percent of the workforce do not achieve minimum proficiency in foundational literacy skills in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and Bolivia. In other words, they do not have a basic sight vocabulary and cannot read short texts on familiar topics to locate a single piece of information.

This phenomenon is not exclusive to low-income countries. Results from PIAAC, conducted in 2018 in over 40 countries, indicate that 20 percent of adults (16-55) in OECD countries’ workforce do not achieve minimum proficiency in literacy skills. The workers will find it challenging to upskill and reskill and will probably access low-pay, low-productivity jobs along their careers.

Foundational skills development and remediation are priorities moving forward

Many post-secondary education systems, especially TVET systems, struggle to impart technical skills to individuals who lack foundational skills, such as literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving.  While proficient in a particular technical skill, these individuals may still be unattractive to employers and not have the capacity to adapt to a dynamic labor market that requires workers to learn and adjust constantly. In this context, the assessment, development, and remediation of foundational skills should be a priority in technical and vocational education and training (TVET), higher education, and adult learning systems (Figure 1). Available results indicate that investing in the development and remediation of foundational skills generates high economic returns. Workers with higher proficiency levels in literacy and numeracy have higher rates of formal employment, higher hourly wages, and more secure jobs.

Figure 1: Skills development along the education cycle

Skills development along the education cycle
Source: World Bank

Beyond literacy and numeracy, skills development programs should ensure the development of students’ socio-emotional skills, broadly defined as those skills necessary for individuals to manage relationships, emotions, and attitudes successfully (e.g., self-control, grit, teamwork, and growth mindset). The emerging literature shows that socio-emotional skills are also “foundational,” to the extent that they contribute to building other skills. A recent study on a large scale shows that teaching social and emotional competencies is positively associated with short- and medium-term cognitive-behavioral engagement in almost all academic subjects.

In summary, the pandemic, coupled with the rapid rise of digital transactions and services, automation, and changes in the nature of work, will require ensuring that individuals in the workforce have good endowments of skills to thrive in the labor market. While education systems have traditionally focused on helping students become proficient in an occupation, modern education systems must concentrate on assisting students in developing foundational skills necessary to exercise many professions during their careers and adapt to emerging technologies.


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