Narrowing the global skills gap to fight youth unemployment


Picture of Shyamal Majumdar
Shyamal Majumdar

There is an urgent need to tackle the grim realities facing young people in both developing and developed countries. Worldwide, 123 million young people lack basic literacy skills. That narrows their opportunities for entering further education, training and ultimately the labour market. The United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) estimates that as many as 73 million young people are unemployed.

In OECD countries, nearly one in five young people are not in education, employment, or training (NEET). Such sorry figures underscore the need to address education and training systems that fail to equip young people – and adults – with the knowledge and skills they need.

Two things exacerbate the situation. First, in countries that pursue jobless growth, those who possess the right mix of skills can be easily absorbed into the market, while others get left behind. Young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Knowledge, skills and competencies are essential if young people are to compete with those already in the labour market.

The second problem is closely linked to the first – an endemic skills mismatch. 40% of European companies report difficulties in hiring adequately-skilled staff or say workers are ill-prepared for the tasks they face. India, Singapore, China and other Asian countries have also seen a surge in graduate unemployment and skills shortages.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) can provide a solution by equipping young people with essential knowledge and practical skills. However, TVET systems must be sufficiently mature to adapt to changing employment structures and skills demands. TVET is often weakened by its inability to develop the right mix of skills for changing market conditions and enhanced labour mobility.

A high percentage of youth unemployment is caused by the inability of education and training systems to adapt their provision of skills according to anticipated changes in the labour market, simply because labour market intelligence is weak or non-existent. Inadequate skills are often the result of inefficiencies in school and training systems that fail to establish synergies with industry.

Skills-related bottlenecks are particularly acute in economies making low-carbon transitions, and skills shortages are sometimes even the result of countries shifting to green economies at a time when TVET systems lack the agility to adapt to green technologies.

The learning of essential skills is also hampered by the failure to mainstream science, technology, engineering and mathematics into TVET, giving it a limited, labour-intensive orientation. This adds to the disconnect from the world of work. Inadequate skills can be the outcome of poorly structured curricula unable to lay appropriate foundations for lifelong learning. Skills that enable learners to adapt to the changing environment, that help create self-starting enterprise opportunities when jobs are not available, that make the transition from classroom to workplace possible and that allow learners to react effectively to rapid technological advancements are critical for young people and adults.

The UNESCO and several of its member states agreed at the World Education Forum in Seoul this year on a post-2015 education framework. In their Incheon Declaration, they laid down a working structure to guide countries as they pursue education that promotes access, inclusiveness and equity, quality and relevance within a long-learning perspective.

In this framework, TVET should be provided throughout the different levels of education. UNESCO believes that there is an increasing demand for high-level cognitive and interpersonal skills, including information processing, critical thinking and problem solving. It is imperative for TVET curricula to include both work-related skills and transferable skills, such as entrepreneurial and ICT abilities, to broaden the learning experience. Promoting flexible learning in formal and informal settings would also enable both youths and adults to improve and adapt their skills.

Mechanisms must be put in place to assess the quality and quantity of available skills and ensure that education and training systems are responsive to the needs of the labour market. At the core of this development framework is the need to redefine the thinking process on how TVET should be organised, implemented and monitored to strengthen its role as a viable solution to unpredictable market phenomena and serve as a sustainable lifelong learning platform.

If adequately developed, TVET can help talented youths and adults break out of unemployment to reach their full potential. TVET can be instrumental in reaching the post-2015 call for partnerships and strategies which yield the triple dividend of making young people highly employable, developing green economies and contributing to 2030 education and sustainability targets.

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