What is behind the growing demand for skills-based education? A view from the field, on World Youth Skills Day


Education for Life Outcomes

Education is increasingly recognized as the most valuable investment we can make in youth globally. At the highest level, the goal of that education is to improve lives. But are we fulfilling our obligation to invest in education that achieves that goal? In the wake of massive gains in primary level enrollment driven by the Millennium Development Goals, universal secondary school enrollment is the next big target.[1] As participation rates expand, governments, donors, and education partners must ask, Are we improving the lives of the students we reach as we enroll more of them?

At Educate!, we started out as a scholarship organization, helping more Ugandan youth complete secondary school. But we eventually had to come to grips with the fact that our graduates as a whole were not better off after the scholarship, still unable to lift themselves, much less their communities, out of poverty. As a result, we shifted course, building our model around direct impact on the outcomes that make a young person’s life better and allow youth to support change in their communities: improved livelihoods, increased business and job creation, improved community participation, and improved 21st Century/employability skills.

Aggressively managing and measuring our impact against these goals, rather than just school completion, transformed the way we operate and the tools we are able to give youth to succeed in the aims they set for themselves. We are proud of our Randomized Control Trial midline results that show our students roughly doubled their incomes by the end of our program, putting powerful data behind the feedback we get from youth, teachers, and education policymakers: Embedding skills in schooling is necessary to serve the fundamental purpose of education – to improve lives.

The lesson we have taken is that to meet our obligation to improve young people’s lives through education, we must measure our impact on life outcomes. And meaningful, measurable impact on life outcomes is achieved through skills-based education.

Why Skills-Based Education?

Youth unemployment is perhaps the most pressing need of youth – 311 million young people are unemployed globally. Sub-Saharan Africa is a hotspot of youth unemployment – extreme youth bulge demographic dynamics (Sub-Saharan Africa is projected to have the world’s fastest population growth between now and 2050 and the highest youth population)[2] are met with only slow growth in formal employment. According to the ILO, the proportion of the working-age population in paid employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is only 13.7% – the global average is more than double that.[3]

Skills are key to both formal and informal employment,[4] and to economic growth more broadly[5]. Non-cognitive, or “soft” skills, such as communication, teamwork, and leadership, are increasingly accepted as critical to workforce success. Perhaps surprisingly, they are even more important in the informal economy,[6] which is the economy that will include the vast majority of African youth[7], who will in turn comprise 50% of global youth by 2050[8].

In Uganda these dynamics are particularly stark: 50% of Ugandans are under 15 years old, youth unemployment is as high as 62%[9], and the youth poverty rate is 94%[10]. Increased education alone does not provide a solution: upper secondary education does not lead to increased income-levels[11], and only 28% of tertiary education graduates manage to find formal employment.

We think these conditions have driven the demand for and therefore the success of our model, as well as the engagement we’ve seen from students, teachers, and government representatives, allowing our rapid expansion – we are now in almost 10% of Ugandan secondary schools. Our students are enthusiastic to learn and practice skills they can immediately apply, and which they can use to tackle the practical problems they face outside school walls. Teachers are energized by the effectiveness of our skills-based pedagogy, and government representatives are impressed by the success rates they see on issues that confront the country as a whole – employment, job creation, and commitment to community engagement.

The ultimate lesson we have learned in Uganda, which we believe applies equally across the world, is that if we want to serve the real needs of youth, education must give them the skills they need for the economic and social realities they will face upon graduation.

Skills-Based Education in Africa – A Growing Consensus for Reform, and a Critical Moment

At least seven governments in Sub-Saharan Africa are actively pursuing skills-based education reform today. We believe these parallel efforts reflect the shared circumstances most African countries face: high youth unemployment and education systems that do not currently prepare youth for the realities of life after school. The momentum around skills-based education reform, coupled with accelerating secondary school enrollment, provides a golden opportunity for the global conversation around skills and education to translate into real impact on youth and their lives.

We have already seen the transformative power of skills-based education on youth in Uganda. Youth across the continent and around the world equally deserve an opportunity to change their own lives and to become drivers of economic growth in their countries. World Youth Skills Day is a time for the international community to put the spotlight on skills and to learn from evidence like Educate!’s story, recognizing the returns investment in skills can have. Research, innovation, and experimentation today on the best ways to give youth the practical skills they need to succeed and to drive economic growth have the potential to impact millions and to change the course of the global economy for the next generation.


About Educate!:

Educate! works to transform education in Africa to teach youth to solve poverty for themselves and their communities.

Educate! provides a practical model of education, comprised of leadership, entrepreneurship and workforce readiness training, a practically trained mentor, and experience starting a business for youth, with the goal of making this model part of the education system.

In 2015, we’re working with over 250 schools and almost 90,000 students in Uganda (almost 10% of secondary schools) with a team of over 170, and have seen massive impact in our graduates in a randomized control trial: a doubling of income and a 64% increase in business creation. In 2012 our curriculum and student business club structure was incorporated into Uganda's entrepreneurship course nationally, reaching over 25,000 students annually. Graduate Lillian Aero employs over 100 AIDS-affected women.

We have been backed by top foundations such as The MasterCard Foundation, Echoing Green, Ashoka, Segal, Barr, Planet Wheeler, and Halloran Philanthropies, and featured at Clinton Global Initiative, Forbes 30 under 30, 2015 WISE prize and The Brookings Institution.

Educate!’s vision by 2024 is to reach one million students annually across 10 countries in Africa.

[2] Population Reference Bureau, 2013 World Population Data Sheet

[3] International Labour Organization (ILO), Global Employment Trends 2014

[4] Results for Development Institute (R4D), Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement, October, 2013.

[5] ILO

[6] R4D

[7] Ncube, Mthuli,“Recognizing Africa’s Informal Sector.”African Development Bank Group (Blog post, March 27, 2013).

[9] ActionAid Uganda, “Lost Opportunity? Gaps in Youth Policy and Programming in Uganda” Action Aid International Uganda, 2012. 

[10] Nicola Banks & Munshi Sulaiman, BRAC “Problem or Promise: Harnessing Youth Potential in Uganda,” Youth Watch 2012 Report, December 2012.

[11] BRAC