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3 ways to prepare young people for the post-COVID jobs market

Palestinian student Raseel Hussein attends an online lesson in her family home, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Gaza City September 22, 2020. Picture taken September 22, 2020.

Palestinian student Raseel Hussein attends an online lesson in her family home, Gaza City, Sept 2020 Image: REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

Asheesh Advani
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This article is part of: The Jobs Reset Summit
  • To prepare young people for the jobs of the future in spite of the digital divide, we must deploy no-tech as well as hi-tech educational methods.
  • We must reduce our focus on high-stakes exams and replace them with fairer forms of assessment.
  • Young people must be empowered with adaptable skills and financial resources.

As the global pandemic reshapes the future of jobs, how can we help prepare our youth for the unknown? Here are three ideas.

1. Teach through a mix of high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech

As schools moved online during lockdowns, the pandemic began to expose the world’s entrenched digital divide, in which the 'technical haves' – those who possess high-quality devices with internet access – and the 'technical have-nots' have grown further apart. Many developing countries, as well as rural communities in developed countries, lack consistent and affordable broadband. In addition, blackouts and brown outs in some countries restrict real-time access. Girls may be steered away from technology solutions in favour of their male counterparts. Young people in refugee camps and youth with disabilities face even steeper challenges in getting online. And once they’re connected, young people may not be safe from predators, bullying, and hate speech if their online space isn’t regulated.

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This is no small problem. Last year, a UNESCO report on global broadband access found that half the world remains unconnected. The report defined “meaningful universal connectivity” as “available, accessible, relevant, and affordable” access that is also “safe, trusted, user-empowering, and leads to positive impact” but showed that only about half of global households offered such access, with gender inequality exacerbating the effects of poverty, while growth in the availability of internet has slowed considerably. That means more than three billion individuals around the world are not connected. According to Houlin Zhao, Secretary-General of the International Telecommunication Union: “Digital inclusion can only be meaningful and effective if and when Internet users feel empowered to use the technology—and when the technology is affordable, attractive and safe."

When it’s available, high-speed broadband and the technology that accompanies it offers tremendous educational opportunities. But until everyone can participate in the high-tech offerings that broadband access allows, comparable low-tech and no-tech educational opportunities must also be available. One example of a low-tech option is an easily downloadable resource, such as a PDF, that allows learning materials to be accessed not just while the internet is available, but offline, too. Similarly, a no-tech example might include comic books or graphic novels that teach in a colourful, narrative format that mimics the online world, but that can be disseminated through an entirely non-technical distribution system. The use of educational radio or TV broadcasts also eliminates the need for broadband access. Or, better yet, educators can combine many of these low- and no-tech options to yield the greatest connectivity.

2. Reduce the focus on high-stakes exams

The pandemic has also reminded us that standardized tests and other high-stakes exams are inherently unfair forms of evaluation that exacerbate inequality. There is now ample evidence that these exams, first introduced in the 19th century, are no longer fit for purpose. On a national level in both developed and developing countries, high-stakes tests perpetuate inequality. On a household level, parents from all socioeconomic levels have experienced the imperfections of standardized testing during the COVID-19 crisis, with inconsistent levels of access to teachers, varying levels of access to technology, significant glitches during online testing, and a lack of readiness on the part of the test providers and schools among the main challenges. Inequality and unfairness that is felt by everyone – rather than just the most marginalized – has heightened interest in abolishing testing altogether.

Economic inequality is perpetuating educational inequality
Economic inequality is perpetuating educational inequality Image: Center for Global Development

Replacing standardized tests with other forms of assessment is daunting, of course, but some promising trends have the potential to prepare young people for jobs in the Great Reset. Microcredentials for specific job-related skills have been multiplying for professionals and college-aged young people, and have now started to reach students in secondary schools. These have the potential to communicate more to prospective employers and universities than test results can do on their own.

One example is a microcredential that assesses entrepreneurial skills, the Entrepreneurial Skills Pass (ESP), which schools in 38 countries use as a competence-based assessment tool. First introduced in 2013 as a collaboration among several education organizations in Europe, and supported by the European Union, the ESP has now spread to the Middle East, South America, and Africa. Testing for changes in so-called 'soft-skill' competencies, such as teamwork and resilience, is more challenging than assessing vocabulary and algebra, but educators and policy-makers have started to introduce new approaches to assessing these skills, which are essential to ensuring the workplace success of youth in a post-COVID world.

3. Empower youth with adaptability skills and financial resources

The pandemic has reminded us that a good job with a stable organization doesn’t mean what it used to, as we’ve watched millions in that situation lose their jobs, either temporarily or permanently. Instead, the greatest employment skill we can teach young people is adaptability: pivot fast, stretch to find the most creative solutions, and seek new opportunities to build and grow skills. Whether through entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship, young people with the skills to adapt will have more doors open to them.

What are the jobs of tomorrow?
What are the jobs of tomorrow? Image: World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report 2020

That said, a resilience mindset and adaptability skills are necessary—but not entirely sufficient—during a deep economic crisis in which the employment market and the capital market are strained. This pandemic has reminded us of the benefits of a financial cushion and the necessity of equipping young people with financial capability to maintain at least six months of savings. Sufficient savings allows young adults to invest time in reskilling and upskilling, change careers throughout their lives as industries shrink and others emerge, and avoid the extreme stress that paycheck-to-paycheck living creates.

Developing financial capability goes beyond financial education. For young people, there is a difference between learning about the concept of saving money and actually developing the attitudes, behaviors, and self-efficacy that enable financial capability . . . to do so before the next emergency or pandemic. The growth of matched savings programs and children’s savings accounts is one promising trend. The private sector, too, has a critical role to play in closing the financial-capability gap.

One of the unexpected benefits of the pandemic is that stay-at-home orders and blocked supply chains have led young people all over the world to develop new, practical skills. But even with these new skills and a mindset that embraces change, we are likely to likely to leave entire communities behind and exacerbate inequality if we don’t prepare our youth with financial-capability skills; ensure that entrepreneurial skills are as desirable as high standardized-test scores are; and create educational initiatives designed for high-tech, low-tech, and no-tech environments.


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