Eradicating Poverty and Unemployment through Skills Acquisition
A 2017 UNESCO report states that world poverty could be cut in half if all adults completed secondary education and it’s already falling.
But while, as the UN’s 2018 Sustainable Development Goals Report notes, more people in the world are leading better lives and more people are working, these improvements have vaulted over low-income countries, who still grapple with high unemployment rates, increasing the possibility that they continue to be left behind.
Fighting poverty in low-income countries, therefore, requires a new approach. Youth and women are essential to achieving the SDG targets of equal access to education, gender equality, and decent work, so the solution to high unemployment lies within these demographics.
Behind the Curve
Education and gender equality, two fundamental tools for reducing poverty, face significant challenges in low-income countries. Despite increasing school enrolment, these countries account for 24% of the world’s out-of-school children, adolescents, and youth, even though they constitute just 13% of the global school-age population. By contrast, high-income countries are at 2% and 11%, respectively. Furthermore, less than 41% of adolescents and youth in low-income countries attend secondary school, well below the 77% global average, with girls enrolling in even smaller numbers; despite a shrinking global gender gap, less than 38% of girls, compared with 44% of boys, go on to secondary school. Tertiary education is even more unattainable; where 38% of youth worldwide make it to a tertiary institution, less than 9% of youth in low-income nations do and just 7% of university-age females, compared with 11% of university-age males, are enrolled. And most youth who are able to acquire a tertiary degree find it lacking, as tertiary institutions continue to run academic programmes that fail to develop in their students the 21st-century global competencies needed to navigate and succeed in the work environment.
Employers, however, continue to hire talent based on their academic credentials, especially when recruiting for formal sector jobs. Not surprisingly, these hiring practices tend to attract applicants who have academic qualifications but lack requisite competencies, while excluding a pool of “unqualified” yet competent candidates who have acquired the required skills through informal work, skill acquisition programmes, life experiences, and other alternative means.
With employers focusing on academic credentials, the vast majority of youth and women in low-income countries cannot secure higher-wage jobs. Consequently, the rate of working poverty for youth far outstrips that of adults. Young women are more deeply affected by this than young men as they have more obstacles to overcome. Most cultures, for instance, assign traditional gender roles to young women, having them shoulder the lion’s share of domestic and family care responsibilities and preventing many of them from working outside the home.
Poor security, limited and ailing infrastructure, and few transportation options coalesce into personal safety concerns for commuting women, which makes working late or early hours a challenge. Young women alos have to contend with ingrained cultural biases in the workplace that lead to most women being relegated to low-paying jobs. All of these factors make conventional work difficult or untenable for many young women.
Financial autonomy, social mobility, and self-determination are therefore beyond the reach of many youth and women. Governments, educators, and employers must therefore change their approach to fighting unemployment and poverty.
They may do so by creating inclusive alternative paths to employment that develop and recognise competencies.
To get more youth and women through the door, employers must first begin to acknowledge alternative learning pathways by making the shift from academic-qualifications-based hiring to skills-based hiring.
Such hiring practices directly target youth unemployment in low-income countries by giving more young people the opportunity to work and also signal to educators a focus on competencies, thereby encouraging institutions to modernise their programmes in order to produce graduates with in-demand skills.
Multinationals like Google, Apple, Ernst & Young, and IBM now hire candidates with non-conventional technical training and practical work experience.
Employers must also institute blind hiring practices, as these competency-based methods have been proven to diversify the workforce; a 2000 study found that the introduction in the early 1970s of blind auditions, where musicians auditioned behind a screen that concealed their identity, helped to almost quadruple the number of female orchestra members in major US orchestras by the mid-1990s, with female players being 50% more likely to advance beyond preliminary rounds and their chances of ultimately being selected increasing several fold, despite the field’s high competitiveness—all of this achieved by simply focusing on skill. Such neutral recruitment processes will help bring more women into the workplace in low-income countries.
Keeping youth and women working should be the next priority. Employers should, therefore, reinforce their revamped hiring practices with unconscious bias training and anti-discrimination policies, both of which are effective tools for weakening gender-based prejudice, creating healthier work environments, and increasing advancement prospects for youth and women. In addition, flexible work arrangements and parental leave will make long-term work more viable for both groups, while providing study leave for employees without credentials and incorporating critical skills development into career paths will demonstrate to employees their employers’ investment in them and in their careers. This will foster a greater sense of belonging, loyalty, and ownership among employees, helping to increase retention rates.
A New Approach to Education
A 2012 study found that teaching young female students in Zambia negotiation skills greatly improved their health and educational outcomes by increasing school attendance rates, decreasing pregnancy rates, and making these girls better advocates for themselves, which helped them negotiate higher parental investment in their education. Educators in low-income countries can likewise overhaul curricula at the secondary and tertiary levels and move education into the 21st century by developing more holistic skills acquisition programmes that help create a more employable workforce.
Soft skills development, currently not included in most curricula, would be a crucial complement to improvements in technical instruction, teaching students the interpersonal, communication, social, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision-making, and adaptability skills they need to be work-ready and giving them an edge in the candidate screening process.
Education institutions must also emphasise practical training by collaborating with industries and companies to provide internships and other work placement programmes.
The Final Piece: Youth and Women
Youth and women must take charge of their own skills development by gauging the labour market and pursuing training for high-demand skills. This will help them position themselves to become better-paid employees.
Increasing their participation in the workforce, however, does not begin with them. It requires a multipronged approach by all stakeholders, one that equips youth and women with the right skills to participate in the labour market while rethinking and modernising the systems on which the labour market depends.
Youth and women can be effective agents of economic growth who help steer their countries towards the global wave of improving lives.
We just need to give them the opportunity to do so.