What We Do and Do Not Know about Youth Employability: Round-Up of Recent Research and Insights

Center for Education Innovations

My interest in youth skills and employability began on the side of a mountain in rural China, where I taught English to a class of 7th graders at a rural boarding school. One statistic that I learned during my first week stuck with me: only about 40% of our school’s students would ultimately attend high school. I wondered what was in store for the other 60%.

Though my main duty was to teach the foundational English skills that 40% of my students would build on in upper secondary school, it was less clear how I could help equip the other 60% with the information and skills they needed to navigate life and work once they left the classroom.
The challenges of youth employability are not unique to rural China. According to the ILO, out of an estimated 200 million unemployed people worldwide in 2016, about 37 per cent – more than 73 million – are between the ages of 15 and 24. Unemployment, especially among youth, depreciates human capital and negatively influences health, happiness, crime levels and socio-political stability. While many countries are prioritizing secondary education, the link between secondary education and skills for employment remains absent in many national education systems.
The good news is that ongoing research is helping to paint a clearer picture of youth employability challenges, and how we can begin to tackle them. Below is a roundup of some recent insights that have informed our thinking and work in youth skills development here at Results for Development (R4D).
In securing the future, education is necessary…
  • A recent World Bank paper examined the role of cognitive and noncognitive skills in explaining the gender wage gap in middle income countries, and found that differences in educational attainment explain the bulk of the gender wage gap, highlighting education as a critical component in determining earnings.
  • In light of this finding, it is striking that in Latin America, only 60% of youth who begin secondary school complete their education, which has major implications for individual future earnings and macroeconomic growth. To unpack this challenge, R4D is conducting a study with CAF to identify critical factors that affect secondary school dropout rates.
…but not sufficient. With quality and relevance as paramount considerations, soft skills and foundational skills are especially important, too.
  • Even when youth do complete their education, they may not be adequately equipped for work. Employers, educators, and youth worldwide are increasingly recognizing the importance of soft skills. As one example, Bridging the Skills Gap, a report co-authored by R4D and FHI360, finds that employers in Colombia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic identified socioemotional skills as the main skill set needed for employability.
  • Beyond the value of soft skills to employers and educators, YouthPower Action’s research on Key Soft Skills for Cross-Sectoral Youth Outcomes identifies soft skills, including positive self-concept, self-control, and higher-order thinking skills, that matter for workforce, sexual and reproductive health, and violence prevention outcomes.
But how they link to labor market outcomes and how to integrate them into education systems is still unclear.
  • Though we have preliminary evidence linking soft skills to outcomes across sectors, their relationship to labor market outcomes remains uncertain (Kluve et al.). This does not mean that soft skills are unimportant, but rather may reflect the significant challenges of measuring soft skills, which YouthPower Action has documented in a review and inventory of soft skills measurement tools.
  • In spite of an emerging consensus on the importance of soft skills and a more explicit focus in education systems on them, as documented in Brookings’ Skills for a Changing World report, these skills have not yet been incorporated into teaching and learning in classrooms. Troublingly, Brookings’ report points to a lack of knowledge and expertise on soft skills among teacher trainers, education administration personnel, and others who have a say in how day-to-day teaching and learning happens.
Preparing for the future, today: Effectiveness and cost data as a foundation to identify, adapt, and scale what works.
An enormous number of youth worldwide are not in school, work, or training. Adapting and scaling skills programming, and ultimately mainstreaming soft skills alongside academic and technical skills in education institutions, is thus a pressing prerogative. But first, we need to identify what works and how we can build on it, and to do this, we need more information on the effectiveness and costs of skills programs.
  • Although the volume of research is increasing, we still lack high quality data on the effectiveness of youth employment interventions, and the data we do have is concerning. Kluve et al. found that only 30% of programs in their systematic review had positive effects on labor market outcomes. Even among successful programs, effect sizes were often small. Unpacking why will be essential to inform additional evidence generation and to ultimately make the case for further investment in youth employability.
  • We also need to know what youth employment interventions cost. In general, the cost of skills programming remains a black box. At CIES 2017, panelists who spoke on cost data for decision-making to improve education policy and practice pointed out that the education sector writ large fails to collect cost data, since we are often unable to track costs by activity, properly allocate fixed costs, or collect the impact data necessary to conduct cost-effectiveness analyses, among other challenges.
  • Finally, effectiveness and cost considerations go hand in hand. As Ali Jaffer and Mona Mourshed of Generation put it in a recent article, “if a program has a low cost per student but fails to actually help people forge a solid career, then the fact that the failure is cheap does not make it any less of a failure.”
In addition to the significant research contributions and insights on youth skills development shared above, our work at R4D has included efforts to shed light on the skills gap in Latin America, identify skills needed for work in Africa and Asia, understand trends and drivers in youth leadership and entrepreneurship in sub-Saharan Africa, and build the evidence base on positive youth development.
But implementers, researchers, policymakers, and funders still have more to do -- and we include ourselves among those with a long to-do list.
Looking ahead, our work will include efforts to unpack the causes of secondary school dropouts in Latin America, convene experts to share their knowledge of key topics, such as innovative ways of financing skills programming, through the YouthPower Learning Community of Practice for Cross-Sectoral Skills, as well as continue to connect skills initiatives and innovators through our Center for Education Innovations.
A world full of engaged, productive and fulfilled youth is not a goal that can wait. With an eye to the future, and urgency in the present, we are excited to dig deeper into youth employability and work alongside others to build a better future for youth.
Originally published by Center for Education Innovators