When we talk about youth, we need to talk about skills

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A computer skills course run by an association in Cairo. (Photo: Hany Ali Ahmed/UNESCO)

When the United Nations kicked off a year celebrating youth empowerment 12 months ago, no one could have predicted that young people would soon rise up across the Arab world, overthrowing leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. The leaders of the Arab Spring are driven by a desire for sweeping social, political and economic change – and high on their list is education that leads to decent jobs instead of unemployment.

As the UN’s International Year of Youth draws to an end on August 12 (International Youth Day), the need for skills that expand job opportunities – especially for young people on the margins of society – has become a hot topic worldwide. The next Education for All Global Monitoring Report, currently in preparation, will focus on the chronic mismatch between education systems and labour markets that plagues many regions of the world.

In a world where skills are in demand as never before, young adults who never attended school, who left early or who left without the cognitive and life skills needed to thrive in literate societies are particularly vulnerable. What kinds of policies are needed to give them access to employment-relevant training? The 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report will explore this question and many others.

Education failures are deeply implicated in the Arab world’s upheaval, as a widely cited post on this blog pointed out. Students end up with skills that are largely irrelevant to the needs of employers, feeding the region’s youth employment crisis, which is addressed by some of the young contributors to the latest issue of the UNESCO Courier.

In the United Kingdom, some commentators have criticized the government for downgrading the value of some vocational qualifications, following the recommendations of a report it commissioned from Alison Wolf, an expert on the links between education and the labour market.

In Canada, on the other hand, students are reportedly moving from academic university degrees to vocationally focused community colleges.

As Angel Gurría, the secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, put it in an address in July, the key question in many kinds is how to shift the focus “from lifetime employment to lifetime employability.” The OECD, for its part, is developing a skills strategy to help countries address this question and design better skills policies.

The International Year of Youth team underlines the crucial role of education and skills in its fact sheet on youth employment, “The best labour market entry path for young people remains a good basic education, vocational training or higher education and initial work experience”.



  1. This is a wonderful article. I think the action is required on policy makers too. It is a lot easier for policy makers to measure success of youth by counting how many degree/diploma graduates were produced that year. But what skills have those youth attained through the studies, or how employable are such young people after attaining such education is difficult to measure and quite often not measured and ignored even.

    It would be great if you can share some research on how skill development can be measured and perhaps such research can help policy makers…
    Best, TAung

  2. The admonition in the title of this blog is indeed critical. I would only add further caution that it is also important to bring a little precision to what is meant by “skills.” The risk is that this be interpreted quickly as “vocational skills.” While these are clearly essential, a focus on vocational skills all too often (1) ignores the many other fundamental skills required for employment (and life in general) and (2) moves the discussion out of school and into training institutions. Many (including the employers with whom I worked in Morocco, and other countries) argue that the personal, or “core” competencies of a job-seeker or employee are even more important to workplace (and social) success. We need to be very clear and strategic also in talking about all of these skills as well as how school can foster these, including all the way down to pre-school. I hope to see this debate continue to happen and grow and look forward to the next GMR.
    Joshua Muskin

  3. Great article! But I do agree with Joshua. We must tread lightly when discussing a switch from a knowledge-based education system to a more skills-based system. I love Angel Gurria’s statement that “the key question in many kinds is how to shift the focus ‘from lifetime employment to lifetime employability.'” But to Joshua’s second concern, we cannot transform a school into a training facility.

    I, too, look forward to this continuing debate. Again, great article.

  4. just quickly, i absolutely agree that we do not wish to transform a school into a training facility. but i do think we want and need to be sure to cover adequately “proto” vocational or professional skills, including both personal competencies and even technical ones. i am thinking especially of those settings where completion of the secondary education cycle (and even the primary cycle) is uncertain for many, or most, students. i contend (and have seen) that a students’ physically manipulating a maths problem (e.g., building a scale model, using real tools and materials), is meaningful less as vocational training than as a way to (i) consolidate her abilities in maths, (ii) hone her general problem-solving skill, (iii) build her confidence and (iv) provide some professional orientation. we need our students to learn with their heads and their hands both to strengthen academic learning and to ally this learning with “real life.”

  5. In today’s technology driven world maybe it is time to re-think on preparing our youth for the global workplace. We all have to become lifelong learners and we are constantly updating our skills to meet the changing demands. Should we narrow our learning objectives so as to train more specifically?

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