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