Giving young people the right skills for today’s jobs

At a time when youth unemployment has reached alarming levels, governments are urgently seeking ways to tackle the crisis and defuse the potential time bomb of an increasingly disheartened and angry generation. Journalist Patrick Moser reports.

Feature | 15 May 2012
Providing young men and women with the skills they need to enter the marketplace is a crucial element in addressing youth unemployment, which affects an estimated 74.8 million youth worldwide.

Vocational education and training (VET) can play a central role in preparing young people for work, but experts say that in many cases such programmes fail to respond to labour market needs.

Yet, it is widely agreed that building solid bridges between the worlds of learning and work is key to ensuring that young people learn skills required by the labour markets. Countries that have had some success in raising employment among young people closely link vocational training with labour market needs.

Michael Axmann, an expert in skills development systems at the ILO, cites the example of Germany’s latest reform of its long standing “dual system”, which combines apprenticeship training by companies with school-based theoretical training.

An acute skills shortage in Germany’s IT sector in the late 1990s led to the development of new apprenticeships designed to meet the sector’s specific needs, with strong emphasis on helping young people plan and carry out their work independently. The IT apprenticeships are now highly popular and have led to a smoother recruitment process and spearheaded a reform process aimed at making the “dual system” more flexible and more relevant.

“Training alone never creates jobs”

The ILO expert cautions, however, that “training alone never creates jobs”.

According to Axmann, enterprise-based training helps young people to get a foothold in the world of work. Because of the lack of an employment record, such training helps young people and employers to get to know each other.

“Workplaces provide a strong learning environment, developing hard skills on modern equipment, and soft skills through real world experience of teamwork, communication and negotiation; workplace training facilitates recruitment by allowing employers and potential employees to get to know each other, while trainees contribute to the output of the training firm,” the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says in a recent report.

The OECD report insists on the fact, that “workplace learning opportunities are also a direct expression of employer needs, as employers will be keenest to offer those opportunities in areas of skills shortage”.

Adapting skills to the jobs of the future

In all countries the implications for skills development are momentous. Many of the jobs that will be generated over the next two decades do not exist today; yet most of the workforce of those years is already in education and training.

Skills development is expected to play a major role as economies move toward cleaner energy use, creating new, green jobs. Several countries are already reporting shortages of skills in the renewable energy and other “green” sectors. “There is an urgent need for training in the full complement of skills required across a broad range of jobs so that economies can both continue ‘greening’ and realize the potential growth in employment the process offers,” the ILO says in a forthcoming report on skills and green jobs.

In many cases, curriculum reform is needed to make skills programmes relevant to today’s world of work. “This often may involve a thorough rethinking of the way skills are being imparted. Rather than being taught to memorize vast amounts of technical details, students need to learn to think in functional contexts and take analytical approaches to problems,” explains Axmann.

“With vocational education and training, for too long we made our students develop a brain that acts like a computer with a small processor and a huge memory, but what they actually need to succeed in today’s world of work is a brain with a much bigger processor unit while the memory capabilities could be much smaller,” the ILO expert concludes.

Youth employment in Serbia

In Serbia, unemployment rates among youth are three times those of adults (37.4 per cent and 12.3 per cent, respectively, in 2010). Low-educated young women and men, young Roma, internally displaced youth and refugees face even more severe challenges, such as underemployment, precarious jobs, poor working conditions and work in the informal economy.

The country’s Youth Employment Policy and Action Plan (2009–2011) emphasizes employment-intensive growth, employability, labour market inclusion through targeted measures, and governance of the youth labour market. Some US$3.9 million, from both government and donor resources, channelled into the existing Youth Employment Fund, have supported the implementation of a wide range of integrated youth employment measures.

Active labour market programmes have targeted more than 3,500 disadvantaged youth. Most of these young people have low levels of education (85 per cent), are long-term unemployed (60 per cent) and have no work experience (52 per cent). 

Government monitoring data show that, among young beneficiaries who are working, as many as 85 per cent have entered full-time employment. More than half of them work in the same enterprise from which they received training (57 per cent), and use the skills acquired through on-the-job training (62 per cent). What’s more, the wages of programme participants are between 10 and 20 per cent higher than the statutory minimum wage.

The ILO has worked with the Ministries of Economy and Regional Development, Labour and Social Policy and the social partners on the development and implementation of the Youth Employment Policy and Action Plan; the establishment of the Youth Employment Fund; the development of evidencebased youth-specific employment policy objectives and targets; the integration of labour market, migration and social services; and the provision of capacity building for the labour market.