Bridging the job skills gap around the developing world

June 17, 2014

Developing employment skills such as communication, relationship-building, and problem-solving is essential in helping millions of unemployed youth globally, according to a Washington, D.C.-based international development organization that works to help overcome challenges facing people in low- and middle-income countries.

Through collaboration with more than 100 partner organizations, the Results for Development Institute (R4D) identifies and supports or implements new approaches to improving health, education and related areas including nutrition in low- and middle-income countries.

“We’re not on the pure academic end and we’re not in the massive implementation; we’re right in the middle deliberately,” R4D managing director Nicholas Burnett said of what distinguishes his group’s research and work from other Washington actors in the development space.

It is estimated that by 2030, there will be 3.5 billion people in the global workforce, but 1 billion of whom will not have the necessary skills to find a job including 75 million youth, according to R4D.

Unemployment is growing among youth. For example, in Kenya, 30 percent of 20-to-24-year-olds are unable to get jobs, according to information provided by R4D.

A mismatch exists between the demands of the current global marketplace and the skills millions of young people have, Burnett said.

“In the developing world, most people now get some secondary education, but most people don’t even complete it,” he said. “So secondary education is critically important in the developing world, because it’s still incomplete but also because it’s the level in which most people enter the workforce. It’s true in Asia. It’s true in Latin America.”

On Wednesday, the global nonprofit will host a panel discussion based on recently completed research that explores the skills gap and provides examples of programs in different countries aimed at promoting skills for employment through secondary education. The panel will consist of experts including representatives from the Toronto-based MasterCard Foundation, which promotes financial inclusion and advance youth learning, and Educate!, a U.S.- and Uganda-based non-governmental organization developing young leaders and entrepreneurs.

Non-cognitive skills sometimes called soft skills or life skills, are largely behavioral – i.e. communicating well verbally and in writing, arriving to work on time, possessing a basic education. The skills are also considered flexible - they represent a “range of skills that are crucially important not only in the modern U.S. economy, but actually around the world,” Burnett said.

David de Ferranti, co-founder and president of R4D, was once regional vice president for the World Bank in Latin America and the Caribbean. He spent several years working in development projects and had built up an extensive network of community-based organizations, thought leaders, and others concerned about how to effectively marry studying issues and problems with practical solutions. At the World Bank, he was responsible for a $25 billion loan portfolio and a staff of 700 in 16 locations. But believed there was more to be done.

“The founder recognized a disconnect between the large multinational organizations operating in the developing world and the countries or the programs that they were trying to support,” said Wambui Munge, communications officer.

Large organizations had noble intentions and the infrastructure to carry projects, but found they had a hard time seeing the work on the ground, so to speak. And smaller organizations working on a micro-level found it hard to see their connection to the bigger picture, their role in making a large impact.

R4D thinks of itself as a “think and do tank,” Munge said.

Its funding sources vary between multinational agencies and private foundations such as the World Bank, the Gates Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation, which funded the skills research that will be presented Wednesday. They have a wide range of funders that vary across projects.

Soft skills may be more crucial than analytical or job-specific skills, but curricula may not emphasize these skills. R4D’s research focused on models or examples of innovation that seem to be working or seem to have promise such as entrepreneurship programs in public schools operated by Educate! and Yuwa, a program in India that uses soccer to teach girls the sport as well as other skills including how to get along, how to follow rules, and how to be flexible. Other bright spots, Burnett noted, have been employer-education collaborations that reformed middle-school curricula in Senegal or created targeted training programs and other vocational institutions through via a public private partnership in India known as the National Skills Development Corporation.

Even though the focus on challenges and opportunities was primarily in Africa and Asia, key recommendations for training youth also are applicable in the United States, Burnett said.

In the United States, the highest level of education attained by most unemployed adults 25 and older is less than a high school diploma. “In fact, according to IMF analysis, the skills gap accounts for approximately one-third of the U.S. unemployment rate. By 2020, an estimated 63 percent of the projected 48 million job openings will require some sort of post-secondary school training,” according to a 2013 J.P. Morgan press release.

“The problems are quite similar to those in the U.S.,” Burnett said. “The solutions, while not identical, may be very important for the U.S. We think the techniques we’ve been using to identify programs which are important could be applied here. We think that some of the program lessons could be applied here, of course, with appropriate adaptations.”

Related information: Link to R4D’s recently published reports on Skills for Employment.

Jeannine Hunter is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

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