What is the evidence in Youth Workforce Development? USAID’s Findings

USAID Education

Two years ago when USAID came out with its Education Strategy, the Office of Education took up the Administrator’s charge of greater use of evidence in USAID’s program designs.  At the time, we on the Youth & Workforce Development team asked ourselves: “What exactly does the evidence say?” We knew that the enormous amount of action research suggested that young people were developing their skills and gaining employment from both formal and non-formal education, second chance opportunities, work-study and internship opportunities, and other programs. But we didn’t know the relative rigor of these findings.  We decided we needed to better understand the body of evidence out there: what works in youth education and what doesn’t?

USAID commissioned JBS International to help us answer this question. We wanted to gauge the state of the field in three distinct areas:

1.    youth workforce development,

2.    youth education in conflict and crisis environments, and

3.    holistic cross-sectoral youth development. 

Over the course of several months we interviewed 32 subject matter experts, consulted scores of practitioners, donors, and USAID staff, and culled through 122 studies including impact evaluations, performance evaluations, and additional research.  Some of what we found was promising, some of it was troubling, and some of it was downright murky.  Here's the breakdown of our findings for the Youth Workforce Development report:

Capturing Results

●     The field has no common measurements for workforce development; for example, every program defines and measures “life skills development” differently. Only when we establish common indicators and measurement tools will we be able to compare results across projects and countries.

●     Few studies disaggregated findings based on variables such as age, gender, income levels, education, or characteristics such as confidence or risk tolerance. This data helps us understand how interventions may be transferred from one context to another.

●     Few studies addressed systemic change such as institutional capacity development, policy reform, information, and coordination. If USAID wants to promote local capacity development á la USAID Forward, our workforce development programs need to do a better job of focusing on and capturing the results associated with systems-level interventions.

What’s Missing?

●     What we don’t know is which interventions yield the most meaningful results. Among the 54 studies completed, 12 used experimental or quasi-experimental methods; an additional 13 impact evaluations were in process. While some were focused on specific interventions (vouchers, cash transfers, entrepreneurship training), more multi-component program evaluations should be isolating the effect of select interventions so we can better understand which interventions impact different youth in different ways. Also, more cost analysis is needed: only 8 out of 54 evaluations looked at cost.

●     Surprisingly we found little research on how WFD efforts impact university students: only 4 studies looked at this cohort, of which one found an impact on employment, and the others focused exclusively on measuring skills development.  USAID’s partnerships with universities and community colleges in the US and abroad-- such as the Higher Education Solutions Network and Higher Education for Development (HED)-- present an opportunity for us to better capture the impact of this work.

●     There is also little research on what works for rural youth: a further indication to colleagues working on Feed the Future and youth livelihoods projects to aggregate findings by age!

Doing it Right

●     The research does suggest that youth workforce development (WFD) programs in developing countries are indeed making an impact on incomes and employment, particularly for female, low-income, at-risk, and out-of-school youth.  In Latin America, young women in particular are benefitting more than their male counterparts in employment and earnings.

●     Effective youth WFD programs are those that offer a variety of interventions like apprenticeships, classroom vocational skills training, vouchers, job matching services, and life skills development. In fact, 35% of the studies looked at programs with 5 or more components, and 30% included 3-4 program components.

The task ahead may appear daunting, but it is the start of an important path towards progress and change. Later this summer, watch for the USAID/E3/ED Research & Evaluation Agenda: this document will provide a set of finely-tuned learning questions for USAID youth workforce development programs.  We are aiming to coordinate USAID’s future evaluations with what others are researching-- essentially we want to roll up the body of evidence into something more targeted, more cohesive.  It is our hope that when USAID programs coordinate their learning agendas, over time subsequent program improvements will give even more young people the chance to obtain the jobs they deserve.

Copies of the full “State of the Field” reports can be found here.