Published on Jobs and Development

Life skills boost youth employability yet what can we do to foster them?

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In 2014, 201 million people were unemployed globally. This year, the ILO expects that figure to rise by 3 million. Young people are most affected: there are 74 million people between 15 and 24 who were seeking work in 2014.
Yet, juxtaposed against this, the McKinsey Global Institute estimates that by 2030 there may be a shortage of nearly 45 million medium skilled workers in developing countries . This skills shortage persists even though more youth are now transitioning to secondary education - the level from which most people enter the labor force[1].
These statistics make clear the vital importance of ensuring that what is learnt within secondary school is relevant and applicable to the labor market of today. Over the course of 2012-2014, Results for Development Institute (R4D), with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, worked to identify and define the skills students in developing countries need in order to take advantage of employment opportunities. The study also explored innovative models of delivering these skills at the secondary level. Our research looked at both the supply and demand sides. Focus groups were held with employers in select countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia to better understand the skills they were looking for when hiring workers.
The key findings from our conversations with employers are:
  • Employers seek to hire those with a mix of cognitive and technical skills as well as life skills, and are as concerned about life skills as they are about cognitive and technical capabilities.
  • Life skills such as communication, teamwork and leadership are especially important in the informal economy, where most workers are self-employed and have to carry out a wide range of tasks.
  • Transferrable skills and being able to apply existing skills in a new context – learning how to learn – is particularly important in today’s dynamic and fast-changing job market.
These insights are based on what employers told us and are not demonstrated preferences that may be seen through assessing newly-minted employees. Nevertheless, our findings mirror similar studies highlighting the growing importance of the category of skills variously termed as life skills, soft skills or behavioral skills.
After consolidating these findings, we went on to investigate innovative models of skills delivery at the secondary level. We studied a variety of interventions in the public and private sectors in both sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. We attempted to tease out particularly effective approaches that improved the quality and relevance of education at the secondary level. We saw four key lessons:
  • Multi-stakeholder partnerships are critical to both the quality and sustainability of programs; engagement of industry and employers - and partnerships with governments - can be particularly effective.
  • Innovative financing mechanisms such as targeted scholarships and voucher programs can counter demand-side constraints and reach excluded populations.
  • Effective use of ICTs can help modernize pedagogy and complement mainstream teaching by shifting to student-centered, active participatory learning.
  • Strengthening life skills alongside traditional cogni­tive and technical skills delivery will help to improve learning outcomes and increase workforce readi­ness.
What’s Next?
In 2013, R4D held two regional conferences in Kenya and in India to share our findings and connect policymakers, researchers and implementers working in the skills for employability space. The insights and connections that arose from those meetings suggest that a concerted effort to foster joint learning and collaboration is needed. This applies especially to certain aspects of the skills agenda, such as measuring the cost effectiveness of programs, reaching informal workers, and assessing mechanisms to reach disabled and marginalized populations. Such targeted technical conversations – either at a country or regional level – may be of crucial importance to develop tools, share lessons, and eventually expand the reach and scope of initiatives.
R4D is now also expanding the geographic scope of the research and is conducting similar work in Latin America and the Caribbean. Together with FHI 360, we are analyzing the skills required for work and identifying models of secondary education in the region. Our work specifically focuses on Colombia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic. This research will use a mix of primary and secondary research, as well as focus on effectively disseminating the joint findings to stakeholders in the region and to engage policy makers, civil society and donors to discuss the implications of the findings. 
[1] The exception is Sub-Saharan Africa, where secondary school enrollment rates remain lower than 40%


Shubha Jayaram

Senior Program Officer

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