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Three Ways to Bridge the Employability Gap in the Developing World

Posted By Shubha Jayaram, Monday, May 19, 2014

What are the skills needed for employability in the 21st century economy? And what innovative models are needed to deliver these skills to students?

In early 2012, Results for Development Institute (R4D) embarked on a research study that examined the skills needed for employment in Africa and Asia. This two year project, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, worked to identify and define the skills students in developing countries need in order to best position them for employment opportunities, and explored innovative models of delivering these skills at the secondary level. We worked closely with five regional research partners, and the scope of our research covered both Francophone and Anglophone Africa, as well as South and South East Asia. In partnership with Ashoka Changemakers, we also held an online competition to identify innovative skills programs.

Over the course of the project, we held regional dissemination conferences in India (January 2013) and Kenya (August 2013), and also organized consultations with experts in youth employment and secondary education. Our research partners produced a series of background studies that were eventually synthesized into a summary report that explored the skills mismatch seen across both regions, and also landscaped innovative programs that are attempting to close the gap. Following this first synthesis report, R4D profiled six innovative models in more depth, and explored similarities in program design, underlying factors of success for implementation, and important lessons for scaling and replicating models. Given the rise of the digital economy, we also developed a report that explored demand-led training models to boost youth employment, with in-depth case studies of particularly promising programs.

Now, after collecting and consolidating valuable feedback from our advisors and from participants at regional convenings, we are pleased to publicize our research findings.

In the last two years, I have learnt an incredible amount about the skills gap, and the mismatch between what employers seek and what youth are equipped with via their schooling.

Three aspects of the research stand out to me:

First, as I have previously noted, the need to make education more relevant to the demands of the labor market is crucial. Employers today are looking for dynamic, entrepreneurial thinkers, who are able to apply lessons from one context to another. They are looking for employees who have leadership skills, and who are able to collaborate effectively and lead their peers when needed. These non-cognitive skills need to be emphasized in the curricula, and importantly, teachers need to be supported in delivering these skills.

Second, there needs to be a closer connection between employers and educators. Only then will curricula truly be demand driven, with youth learning relevant skills that will enable them to obtain a job upon graduation from secondary school. Our mindset must shift, and we must recognize that secondary school is not just a pathway to tertiary education for a large number of young people. Interestingly, we can see movement in this direction in the United States, with IBM collaborating with the New York City Department of Education, City University of New York, and New York City College of Technology in 2011 to open the first Pathways in Technology Early College High Schools (P-TECH). These schools cover grades 9-14, and students graduate with an associate degree and the skillset to enter the labor market or continue their studies. In 2013, New York State announced plans to open 16 more P-TECH schools in collaboration with IBM. Public-private collaborations such as this is already being seen in similar multi-stakeholder partnerships such as India’s National Skills Development Corporation, and will hopefully serve as a guidepost for others.

Third, we must not forget about those youth that are outside the formal education system, or are otherwise marginalized due to disabilities or their gender. Of the world's 69 million out-of-school adolescents, 22 million are in Sub-Saharan Africa and 31 million are in South and West Asia (UNESCO Institute for Statistics 2013). Many youth (particularly girls) are also often employed in the informal sector, and may not be able to access traditional schooling. Offering alternative, non-formal models of relevant education are crucial, and indeed, multi-donor collaboratives such as the Partnership to Strengthen Innovation and Practice in Secondary Education are funding initiatives in this area.

As with the case with such projects, our research indicates that more work remains, particularly around assessing the cost-effectiveness of programs; ensuring that quality, relevant education is inclusive; and connecting stakeholders and sharing best practices. We welcome your comments and feedback on our work, and look forward to engaging with you in this area.

The skills reports are available for download here. For hard copies, please contact Wambui Munge at wmunge@r4d.org.

More information about the Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement (ISESE) project is available here.

Shubha Jayaram is a Senior Program Officer at Results for Development Institute where she specializes in youth skills for employability and secondary education accessibility and quality.

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