Advancing a 21st century skills agenda for today’s youth

On World Youth Skills Day, we acknowledge the millions of young people that are falling in between the cracks because of a “skills gap” – a mismatch on the skills that they have acquired and the skills demanded by today’s employers.

One might expect that critical skills for life and work were developed by youth earlier in their adolescence as critical underlying determinants. However, too many young people simply aren’t gaining the required skills and competencies that will enable them to succeed in today’s workplace. And, when young people are sidelined, a whole economy can suffer. Employers routinely report difficulties in getting workers with the right skills as an impediment to their productivity.

Access to quality training and developing skills relevant to the labor market play a key role in finding solutions for youth employment. This is especially vital for those on the lower end of the skills spectrum, whom the Solutions for Youth Employment (S4YE) – a multi-stakeholder coalition launched to address the challenges of youth employment – is dedicating itself to supporting in pursuing a strategic skills agenda.

A changing landscape

Across, developing, emerging and more advanced markets alike, the emergence of digital, green, knowledge, and service economies alongside globalized value chains is altering the labor market needs and the future of work. There are a variety of 21st-century skills that are needed in the workplace ranging from leadership to entrepreneurial aptitude. Specific skills are also important in certain circumstances.

For example:

* Behavioral skills are valuable given an increased importance on service delivery that requires regular interaction with customers;
* Flexibility and adaptability have become important as young people are more likely to move between informal and formal sectors, and as a result of the growing trend toward short-term or project-specific employment;
* Computer literacy is becoming vital in low- and middle-income countries as online support jobs are outsourced from higher income countries; and
* Technical vocational skills remain key to success. In fact, in many emerging economies, the demand for higher-skilled labor has never been greater as a result of greater outsourcing and offshoring.

More evidence needed

In our baseline analysis , skills training interventions comprise the largest share of eight youth employment investment categories; 48% of the portfolio. Some models for ensuring that youth possess the required skills include technical or vocational training (in conjunction with academic training), as well as on-the-job training, or apprenticeships. Though a number of programs show promising results, many however have not necessarily been most impactful; in part because they are not effectively aligned with market or employer needs.

One challenge in making skills programs more responsive to market demand, is the dearth of quality and credible data on the needs and gaps. The World Bank’s STEP (Skills Towards Employability and Productivity) initiative, which focuses on determining which skills matter most and which are in short supply, aims to address this. In its context, the survey of potential employees and employers (mostly in low- and middle- income countries) outline detailed assessments of adult competencies and employer needs. There is great opportunity in working and building off the STEP surveys in order to capture where skills gap exist including on which sectors and occupations.

Regardless of industry, however, we know it is important to ensure that employers are closely involved in the training process to ensure that skills being trained are relevant to the labor market. We need to understand and collect evidence on the right incentives or best mix of tools in engaging and maximizing investment from the private sector.

As we addressed the fluid nature of skills and competencies required to succeed in the 21st century economy – one that’s shaped by globalization, technology, and rapid urbanization — we need further research and evaluation to determine the best pedagogies.We are, for example, still learning how arts, service learning and sports programs can complement, or can be an alternative to class-based instructional delivery approaches.

We see the importance of standards and harmonization, especially as youth are increasingly on the move and education or training becomes more modular or diffused across a wider variety of institutions and providers. But, questions remain in how to measure, certify and validate competencies. Similarly, we need to better explore how youth can signal their skills and capacities in a way that will be recognized by employers.

Raising the bar

While there is still a need to understand the most effective interventions, the evidence thus far points to programs being most successful when they combine skills training with internships, on the job experience, and capital or other support for self-employment and entrepreneurship. By working with our partners, S4YE’s focus on closing this gap through targeted, demand-oriented and evidence-driven labor market interventions will be key.

Follow the World Bank Group Jobs team on Twitter @wbg_jobs and Solutions for Youth Employment @s4ye_coalition

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