OP-ED: Why Is Technology Skills Training Critical to Low-Income Youth Now?

Making Cents International

Originally posted on Devex.com, September 22, 2014.

In our rapidly changing, hyper-connected world, the information and communication technology (ICT) industry is driving economic growth, innovation, and job creation…it’s also where the jobs are.

Digital Skills Gap

Although young people age 15 to 24 represent 17 percent the global population, youth unemployment accounts for 40 percent of the world’s unemployed. The global youth unemployment rate is calculated at 13.1 percent[i] in 2013, with 73 million young people labeled jobless worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization.[ii] Furthermore, recent estimates indicate that almost one-third of the youth between the ages of 15 and 29 are inactive; that is, they are NEETS: not in education, not in employment, and not in training.

Despite these alarming unemployment statistics among young job-seekers, employers worldwide say they often cannot find the right skills needed to meet their business objectives, especially when they are recruiting for technology-related jobs.

In various rapidly growing sectors in Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa, such as ICT services, business process outsourcing (BPO), banking and financial services, and retail, employment opportunities abound in technology-enabled roles. However, 30 percent of employers in Ghana, 58 percent in Kenya, and 90 percent in South Africa reported challenges in hiring youth for technology-enabled jobs.[iii]

What’s a Digital Job?

As the economy becomes more dependent on digital technology, more and more jobs are becoming “digital jobs,” jobs in which ICT is applied to “a new or existing activity or process.”[iv] Digitization may modify an existing job task, as when a clerk who used to process paper invoices becomes a technician processing online transactions at a computer workstation on another continent. Or it may create wholly new types of jobs, such as mobile application developer, geospatial analyst, or cloud architect. What these jobs have in common is that:

  • They are enabled by ICT infrastructure, including computers, tablets, smartphones, and Internet connectivity.
  • A significant element of the value-added in this work is in creating, manipulating, and sharing information rather than physical products.
  • They are knowledge-intensive and require a distinct set of technical, analytical, and communication skills.[v]

More than 50 percent of today’s jobs require some degree of technology skills, and experts say that percentage will increase to 77 percent in the next decade.[vi]

New Skills for New Jobs Are Needed

Fast-growing technology-enabled jobs (which have replaced lower-skilled jobs) do not necessarily require a college degree, but rather, solid fundamental skills (literacy, numeracy, digital literacy) and relevant technology skills, such as the ability to troubleshoot a computer network or to write code. These technical vocational skills are typically best developed by combining classroom instruction with workplace-based learning, such as internships and apprenticeships. However, most young people have difficulty accessing relevant training and work experience programs.

For young entrepreneurs, technology skills and access to technology greatly improve productivity, lower costs, and advance their businesses into higher value-added activities, thus enhancing their market competitiveness. But many of them fail to acquire the right skills to develop their small enterprises successfully.

What’s the Solution?

Aligning educational content with the skills young people need:  Educational systems are struggling to adapt their curricula and teaching methodology to the rapidly changing requirements of employers and what aspiring entrepreneurs need to be successful. Also, a lack of career services prevents youth from recognizing those promising technology career opportunities. Education and training providers, funders, government and other youth workforce development actors need to understand the technology skills that employers in local markets demand and entrepreneurs require and then translate this information into effective technology training content and delivery.  For example, INJAZ al-Arab’s “Steer Your Career” program harnesses the mentorship of Arab business leaders to hone the work readiness skills of university students in several countries in the MENA region. Delivered over eight weeks in 90-minute sessions, this training develops leadership, time management, communication, teamwork and job search skills through hands-on classroom activities, personal assessments, role playing, and reflection exercises, led by trained corporate volunteers.

Scale and technology. In today’s world, it’s hard to have one without the other. If technology advances are aiding companies across industries and transforming how economic development unfolds in developing countries, where most of the world’s youth population resides, technology should also be helping to connect youth to economic opportunity and sustainable livelihoods. Using technology to train young people on technical, cognitive, and non-cognitive skills required for in-demand jobs is proving to be one of the best ways to address both aspects of the challenge: high youth unemployment and employers’ unmet talent needs. For example, since 2006, NGO Anudip has operated in West Bengal, India. It provides market-aligned ICT and business skills development to poor rural youth, and successfully transitions its graduates into technology-enabled employment or self-employment. Anudip partners with local employers and its sister company, iMerit Technologies, to understand skills requirements and translate them into training modules. Anudip assists the graduates in securing job interviews with partner firms. To date, Anudip has trained more than 15,000 beneficiaries and achieved a 75 percent job placement rate. Anudip’s DREAM program trains, provides financial assistance, mentors, and offers multiple supports to unemployed women in starting and running their IT-based microenterprises.

Coordination and Collaboration Between Diverse Actors: Educators, governments, youth-serving organizations, companies, and donors must work together to design, implement, and manage effective, scalable, and sustainable programs for youth workforce development that match  employers’ changing skill needs. Bridging the digital skills gap requires collaboration of all sectors to create well-functioning local and regional labor market ecosystems.

For example, in the UK, Microsoft collaborates with ICT sector companies within its supply chain, training providers and the UK government to train and certify young people (age 16-14) for apprenticeship in various ICT job roles. Apprenticeships are an effective approach for young people to develop job relevant skills, while working and earning a living. Intensive one to two week long training modules are delivered online or in residential training centres, separated by longer periods of on the job learning. Microsoft regularly consults with its employer-partners to determine which skills and certifications are required for success in their ICT entry level jobs. Over the last four years, this program has successfully trained more than 5,000 youth, with 94 percent retention rate.

To promote more of this kind of coordination and collaboration,  Making Cents and Microsoft Corporation developed a framework, “Understanding the Youth Workforce Development Technology Skills Training  Landscape”, released this week. It is a tool for understanding the unique role that education and training provider plays in youth workforce development and how they fit together based on their primary training objective, market alignment, and measures of success. This framework can be leveraged by practitioners, funders, youth leaders, government and others to foster a common language, greater cooperation and, joint projects to increase youth economic opportunities.

Why Now

For youth, developing technology skills that align with market demand greatly increases their chances of securing employment and achieving career or business success. For enterprises, having well-qualified, technology-savvy talent results in higher productivity, faster growth, and expansion. And for nations, balancing the supply and the demand for technology skills leads to economic and social stability and overall prosperity.

Fiona Macaulay is the CEO-Founder of Making Cents International (www.MakingCents.com) a technical assistance provider and manager of the Global Knowledge Management Platform to Increase Economic Opportunities.  Youth, technology and jobs are a focus at Making Cents’ 2014 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit taking place Oct. 6-8 in Washington DC. ( www.youthEOsummit.org).

[i] ILO, Global Employment Trends 2014. URL: www.ilo.org/get2014

[iv] Rockefeller Foundation, “Digital Jobs in Africa: Catalyzing Inclusive Opportunities for Youth”, 2013.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] US Bureau of Labor Statistics.