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World Youth Skills: Celebrating and Building on What We Know

July 14, 2022

This blog was co-written by David Fein and Nicole Goldin, former Principal Associates at Abt.

Persistently high youth unemployment and underemployment around the globe indicate that millions of individuals are struggling to acquire the knowledge and skills needed for lifelong success. The costs, beyond limited opportunities for youth themselves, can include insufficient talent to drive economic growth and a host of societal challenges arising from poverty.

Long-term technological shifts have increased the productivity and earnings of workers with advanced skills, but incomes for those with low skills have stagnated or declined. A series of recessions have accelerated these shifts and taken a disproportionate toll on youth with less education and training. The recent pandemic’s effects were particularly negative in sectors that employ a higher share of youth, namely services, retail, hospitality, and manufacturing. As a result, gaps in financial well-being and opportunities have widened both across and within nations.

On a brighter note, concerted efforts by a constellation of governmental and nongovernmental organizations, including the private sector, have identified a range of promising responses to these inequities. As we mark World Youth Skills Day, we’d like to reflect on some of the solutions for improving skills of youth around the world that Abt and others have helped to test and deploy.

But What Skills?

The skills likely to matter to potential employers are diverse, often ill-defined, and hard to measure in today’s ever-changing economic landscape. There is, nonetheless, a growing consensus that meeting the increasing demand for general or “essential” skills—as distinct from the technical knowledge and ability required for particular occupations—must play a central role in closing gaps in opportunities worldwide.

One broad group of essential skills includes “cognitive” abilities—abilities that include reasoning, problem-solving, and processing information (including digitally). A second category includes skills variously labeled “soft,” “socioemotional,” or “psychosocial,” which can range from personality traits (e.g., emotional self-regulation, sociability) to attitudes and behaviors required for success at work (e.g., timeliness, suitable dress and appearance, and effective communication).

Employers around the world often put shortages of workers with these essential skills at the top of their list of critical challenge, and research shows continued growth in demand for such skills. Addressing this demand—as well as the demand for technical skills in fast-growing fields—belongs at the center of efforts to reduce unemployment for youth around the globe.

Emerging Evidence on What Works

Recent reviews of training approaches in the U.S. and worldwide suggest that skills development and career-focused interventions can improve education, employment, and earnings outcomes for disadvantaged youth. Effective interventions include programs that strengthen traditional educational systems (e.g., high school, TVET, and college) and workforce training offered through alternative avenues. The latter—often stand-alone programs delivered by community-based organizations—may be particularly suitable to replication and scaling worldwide (including for reaching out-of-school youth). At their best, these programs offer robust essential skills training reinforced through work experience. They target high-demand occupational sectors, including agriculture, which dominates in most low and middle income countries, where good entry-level jobs are accessible with relatively modest amounts of technical training.

Findings from an Abt randomized controlled trial (RCT) put one of these programs in the U.S.—Year Up—in the top tier of proven workforce strategies for low-income youth. Our most recent report on this national program shows large, lasting earnings increases of around $8,000 per year—and substantial net financial benefits to society—over a seven-year follow-up period.

A full-time, one-year program for 18–24-year-old high school graduates, Year Up provides six months of intensive support and training for entry-level jobs in IT and financial services, followed by six-month internships with major firms. Technical training is project-based and highly engaging. The program puts a strong emphasis on essential skills through direct instruction, as well as through contextualized examples and activities built into classes in basic English, business communication, and technical subjects.

Year Up reinforces these lessons through behavior contracts with each student, individualized coaching, support from staff and peers in learning communities, and hands-on learning in internships. Financial stipends help students meet basic needs that otherwise might derail participation. Although relatively expensive (around $28,290 per participant), Year Up covers more than half of those costs through payments from employers for interns (the remainder is funded through philanthropy).

Looking abroad, Abt’s international development work frequently encompasses elements of these strategies and suggests contexts where Year Up-like models might be further explored. For example, engaging the private sector is a longstanding principle in our international development projects; its participation is critical to ensuring our market systems and economic growth programming is responsive to evolving demand.

The sector’s participation also is essential to ensuring the workplace provides opportunities to acquire, develop, and practice essential skills. For example, our buyer-led approach to horticultural market systems under the USAID-funded Feed the Future Egypt Rural Agribusiness Strengthening Project includes work with agricultural technical schools and universities, as well as agribusinesses, to imbue students and recent grads with social, job search, leadership, and communications skills—as well as knowledge of agronomy, vocational skills, and related climate-smart practices. Similarly, our health systems strengthening projects include on-the-job training—often with and through private care providers—to ensure nurses, doctors, lab specialists, and other workers are prepared to respond to emerging needs and provide high quality care. To help meet the expanding COVID-19 demands in Central Asia, we worked with partners to quickly upskill and enable frontline workers to provide a wider range of molecular testing, surveillance, treatment, and acute services.

Open Questions

As we review effective skill-building solutions, World Youth Skills Day is a fitting occasion to sharpen the questions that must be addressed before bringing these solutions to scale. A number of challenges arise from the fact that the most effective programs—like Year Up—tend to be intensive, comprehensive, and expensive. Substantial investments in youth may be necessary to produce significant gains in skills and career opportunities, and the strong evidence from Year Up shows that the financial benefits to society can greatly outweigh the costs.

Nevertheless, upskilling will be easier to finance if effectiveness can be maintained while lowering costs, and some services may be more critical to making an impact than others. There is much we don’t understand about how these programs work, and for which youth—including the particular kinds of skills and amounts of training needed to generate substantial earnings gains. A host of questions connected to adapting strategies for different national and sub-national contexts, as well for different cohorts of youth—for example young men versus young women—also deserve the highest quality research and evaluation we can muster. Better evidence can help us design programs that offer wider populations the training, supports, and work experience they need.

At Abt, we see U.N. Sustainable Development Goal 4 for Education on the horizon and believe that talent is universal, but opportunities must be more equitably available. In the U.S. and developing countries alike, we are committed to gathering, sharing, and applying the evidence on skills to inform, design, and implement programs and policies that enable youth to reach their full potential and help countries prosper.

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