Classroom to workplace: what young people need to succeed

Many young people are leaving school without the necessary skills to progress into the workplace.

Henrietta H. Fore and Sarah Brown
Nabyla (right), 13, attends class in Kaya, Burkina Faso, the town in which her family found refuge after being displaced.
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28 January 2020

Sarah Brown, Executive Chair, The Global Business Coalition for Education, United Kingdom

Henrietta H. Fore, Executive Director, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)

This article is part of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

  • Young people believe education can change their life.
  • Entering the world of work is a challenge for many school-leavers.
  • 825 million children won't have learned secondary-level skills in 2030.

Our work allows us the privilege of meeting a diverse range of young people. Some are on the move from conflict and natural disaster, some are seeking better opportunities in the bustling mega-cities of Asia, Africa and Latin America and others are youth activists taking to the streets to create a better future for the next generation.

Nothing binds them together more than their shared belief that education can change their own lives and that of their families, for the better.

They demand opportunity and an education which allows them to build their skills and contribute to their own societies. Beyond literacy and numeracy, they seek digital and transferable skills like problem-solving, critical-thinking, communications and entrepreneurship. They know these are the skills they increasingly need in a world in which jobs are being transformed by globalization, automation and expanding webs of trade and commerce.

Ladder or limbo?

For millions of young people, the reality is very different. School-to-work transitions are often protracted and in many cases trap people into low-quality work: a ladder to nowhere.

It takes young people in low and middle-income countries about a year and a half on average to break into the labour market, and a staggering four and a half years to find their first decent job.

The transition is considerably longer for the most disadvantaged young people and those with low levels of education and skills. They are more likely to transition to low-paying and low-skilled jobs. For girls, the mismatch between aspirations and transitions to work is stark. The combination of discrimination and societal norms conspire to restrict opportunities girls may have to learn and to find decent work. Too often this pushes them into a life of further disadvantage: exploitation, early marriage or becoming a mother far too early.

Learning and skills crisis

The evidence points to an unmistakable learning and skills crisis - millions of children and young people are struggling to develop even the most basic skills they need. At the current rate of progress, these skills deficits will continue to persist, signaling the urgent need for accelerated and collective action.

The 2030 Skills Scorecard by the Global Business Coalition for Education and the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity 2030 Skills Scorecard makes these stark projections:

  • By 2030, there will be 1.6 billion school-age children in low and middle-income families.
  • 420 million won't learn most basic skills in childhood.
  • 825 million will not acquire basic secondary-levels skills - which is a measure of workplace readiness

Despite the hope that youth express for the future, the deck of cards is stacked against the poorest children and young people from their earliest years, with consequences for their own life chances and the stability and prosperity of their countries.

Recent analysis by the United Nations Children's Fund shows that in many countries public spending on education favours children from the richest households, with the poorest 20% receiving less than 10% of public resources in education or even lower. As a result, the most disadvantaged children are less likely to receive the education and skills they need for a better future.

Richer households receive more public education resources than the poorer ones.
Richer households receive more public education resources than the poorer ones.
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Public investment is also positively linked to learning outcomes and skills development at primary and secondary levels. Where and how public investment is spent is equally important. For instance, increases in teacher salaries have not always led to improvements in learning outcomes, while evaluations of school grants suggest positive impacts on enrolment, but limited impacts on learning outcomes. Sometimes, the resources never reach the schools and the students they are intended to benefit. 

Countries investing more in primary schools have fewer 10-year-olds in 'learning poverty'.
Countries investing more in primary schools have fewer 10-year-olds in 'learning poverty'.

Our call to action

Governments and the business community should be both alarmed and motivated to act by the magnitude of this crisis. So how do we move forward?

Through support and investment in public education and with proactive engagement by businesses, we can dramatically transform the skills landscape for the next generation and ease school-to-work transitions for the most marginalized young people.

1. Finance education: Education is too often on the chopping block of public budgets and the last on the list of donor priorities. We need to embrace the innovative proposals to dramatically scale up domestic and international finance for the education, including the new International Finance Facility for Education, which stands to make record investments in skills for the next generation.

2. Invest early, especially in marginalized children, girls and those furthest behind: This includes governments and donors alike allocating at least 10% of total education budgets to pre-primary education. Investing early will accrue benefits to the disadvantaged youth later as they make the transition from school to decent work, while also developing some of the most essential skills necessary when they become young adults.

3. Support teachers who teach: there is an urgent need to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of existing spending on primary and secondary education by strengthening what teachers know and how they teach and how they are supported in the classroom. If we do this correctly, we can reduce teacher absenteeism, address high repetition rates and low levels of learning.

4. Anytime, anyplace learning and skills development: multiple pathways to learning need to be available to youth, including the most marginalized, to enable them to develop the skills they need to succeed, at a time and in a place that suits their individual circumstances, including with the use of digital technology and community-based approaches.

5. Next-generation partnerships between businesses and government: it’s time for industry leaders and governments to work together to better align labour market needs with education and training systems, and to the aspirations of youth transitioning from school to work.

No one agency, organization or sector can address the learning and skills crisis alone. Intentional collaboration between the public sector and businesses is no longer a ‘nice-to-have’, but an essential strategy. We must ensure education systems are providing opportunities for personal growth and prosperity.

It's what young people demand.

UNICEF, Theirworld and the Global Business Coalition for Education are founding members of Generation Unlimited, a global partnership to identify and grow solutions that link young people with quality education, skills and on-the-job training. GenU invites the expertise, innovation and market reach of businesses into the partnership to support the transformation of education systems and improve school-to-work transitions.