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Why skills for employability matter

I have spent most of my career advocating and working towards  basic education for everyone, and above all for the poor.  I had always thought that this meant getting  kids into school and ensuring that they learned the curriculum – with it becoming increasingly clear in recent years that the learning was not happening, or not happening to a sufficient standard. 

But our recent work at R4D has brought home to me that even learning the curriculum is not enough.  That basic learning is essential, of course, and needs to be done better.  But employers are also looking for other skills from school leavers: especially such things as punctuality, the ability to communicate, and to function in teams (skills that are variously known as 21st century skills or transferrable skills or non-cognitive skills).

This is perhaps the major finding of R4D’s work so far on skills for employability, through our Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement project.  Today we release a series of papers we have written or commissioned with the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

  • Our work combines analysis with the identification of promising solutions.  In particular, we:
  • Focus on secondary education, the level from which most people around the world now enter the workforce.  Only in Africa do most labor market entrants still come from primary education but that is set to change very rapidly.
  • Survey employers on what they want to see in new employees and what are the biggest skill gaps they face:  the non-cognitive skills I mention above.
  • Pay attention to the informal as well as the formal sector – the vast majority of jobs in developing countries are and will be in the informal sector.  Yet most work so far has concentrated on the formal sector, understandably as its very level of organization makes it easier to gather data and conduct analysis.  It turns out that the non-cognitive skills are even more important for the informal sector.
  • Prioritize skills and education for the poor and disadvantaged.
  • Identify promising models of skills delivery that we think warrant more attention and potential replication and scaling up.  We’ve identified these in collaboration with institutes in Africa, South Asia and Southeast Asia and by running a competition – we’ve featured some of the winners on our website in recent months.
  • Identify some important examples of employer-government-education collaboration such as India’s National Skills Development Corporation.
  • Through our work, we have also seen that some gaps remain. We need to know more about unit costs, and learn how promising skills development solutions can be financed and sustained. Pedagogy and teacher training is also key, and we need to explore how best to shape pedagogy to be more learner-centered.

Lastly, demand-driven skills development initiatives are important, and we need to explore how to encourage a broader conversation among employers, educators and policymakers. In the next few months, we will be conducting an in-depth analysis on a selection of innovative models, and convening a regional conference of stakeholders in Asia to share our findings. We will report on these here in the future and hope such conversations can be a starting point to developing a longer, action-oriented agenda. 

It is clear that skills – or their lack – are a hot topic right now.  The World Bank’s 2013 World Development Report focuses on jobs and argues in favor of a strong basic education.  UNESCO’s 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report takes skills as its special theme.  Watch this space for contributions from some of these reports’ authors.

Authored by Nicholas Burnett managing director at Results for Development Institute.