Education and Skills

This is the new skills gap for young people in the age of COVID-19

Students of the faculty of sport sciences at Universite Cote d'Azur wearing protective masks to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), attend a class in an auditorium, as French universities struggle to contain outbreaks at the beginning of the school year in Nice, France, September 24, 2020.  Picture taken  September 24, 2020.    REUTERS/Eric Gaillard - RC219J9XLK2L

How can policy-makers and educators transform how we think about learning in the wake of COVID-19? Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Tsega Belachew
Youth and Economic Opportunities Advisor, IREX
Rachel Surkin
Senior Technical Advisor, IREX
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Education, Gender and Work

  • Faced with rising unemployment, disrupted education and further disadvantages for vulnerable groups, immediate attention is required to prepare young people to earn and thrive during and after the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • IREX is calling on policy-makers and educators to transform how we think about learning;
  • Teaching young people how to “learn to learn” and learn to discern will help them learn to earn.

With the COVID-19 pandemic causing a projected loss of 195 million jobs, dismaying interruptions to education and a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups, preparing young people to earn and thrive in a post-COVID world requires immediate attention.

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The technical skills required for most sectors quickly become outdated owing to rapid changes in technology and the spread of automation. The World Economic Forum projects that by 2022 at least 54% of all employees will need reskilling and upskilling to respond to changing work requirements. Young people need the skills to rapidly learn, adapt, practice resiliency and take advantage of entrepreneurial mindsets, to respond to this reality with the ingenuity to earn an income.

This changing environment calls for a transformation in how we think about learning. Young people must “learn to learn” in order to develop the abilities required to gain new skills and adapt, which will help them secure work opportunities. They must also learn to discern reliable information to navigate today’s information landscape fraught with false and misleading information.

Expected average reskilling needs across companies, by share of employees, 2018–2022
Expected average reskilling needs across companies, by share of employees, 2018–2022 Image: World Economic Forum

To “learn to earn”, policy-makers and education and youth development practitioners must expand skills frameworks to include learning to learn and learning to discern as fundamental soft skills that can help young people thrive in a rapidly changing world of work.

At IREX, our work with students, young job seekers, young professionals and entrepreneurs gives us insight into what youth value most for successful transitions into earning. Here are our recommendations for policy-makers and youth practitioners as they invest in learning:

Expand soft skills frameworks

Employers overwhelmingly agree that young employees need soft skills, such as communication, creative problem-solving and entrepreneurial thinking. International development practitioners offer soft skill curricula to support youth in education and non-formal training programmes, but lack two crucial competencies for youth today.

How in-demand skills have changed
How in-demand skills have changed Image: World Economic Forum

Skill #1: Learn to learn: to participate and thrive in a rapidly evolving world, youth must become power learners

Learning to learn” helps young people rapidly gain skills and knowledge to adapt to changes and succeed. This skill is particularly important as the COVID-19 pandemic causes dramatic shifts in the work opportunities available.

When it comes to learning performance, 40% is due to metacognition – organizing and guiding one’s own learning processes, thinking and actions – but most teaching methods do not prioritize these skills as myths persist that learning relies on innate intelligence, rather than on developing skills and habits.

Our Power Learning Tool offers a science-backed approach to help individuals build metacognition and learn to learn. It supports individuals to take charge of their learning journey by applying a growth mindset which strengthens their agility and openness to learning. This helps them guide their own learning and translate this knowledge into action.

We used the Power Learning approach to develop the skills of young workers at a startup in Nigeria over a six-month period. The training drew from our customizable Employee Essential Skills Suite, which unlocks employees’ potential by strengthening vital soft skills and cultivating an inclusive learning-oriented workplace. Training participants and their managers cited crucial performance gains including more effective teamwork; increased adaptability; and stronger communication, collaboration and problem-solving within the team resulting in improved responsiveness for clients.

Image: IREX

Skill #2: Learn to discern: in a flood of information, youth must discern what is factual and reliable

During the COVID-19 pandemic, young people are weighing information, including misleading information about health risks, to make decisions about their careers. Healthy information engagement skills are necessary for young people to learn effectively on their own and prepare to become resourceful employees, leaders and entrepreneurs.

Our Learn to Discern (L2D) approach draws on behavioural science to help participants build awareness of their cognitive process and emotional impulses. Disinformation and misinformation can negatively impact real-life decisions and actions, target emotional triggers and feed confirmation bias. When young people receive information about exciting income-generation opportunities, they may not have the healthy information engagement skills to check those sources before spreading the information or pursuing opportunities.

The L2D approach has been implemented in 11 countries and skills tests show statistically significant improvements. Participants are nearly twice as good at identifying misinformation. L2D improves the ability to identify and resist manipulative content, promotes healthy and responsible engagement with information and inspires people to call out misinformation when they see it.

Building power learners and adaptable, resourceful, and entrepreneurial earners

Equipped with these critical skills and with the entrepreneurial mindsets to take advantage of available opportunities, all youth, especially those from marginalized groups, can overcome societal messages that dictate which areas of learning and earning are beyond their reach.

These skills require new ways of understanding and shaping cognitive processes. To help youth learn to earn, instructors, educators, and curriculum designers must embed learning to learn and learning to discern pedagogies into training content so that learners intentionally develop associated values and habits. They must also prioritize cultivating entrepreneurial mindsets that will help young people identify and take advantage of earning opportunities.

On a practical level, this includes:

  • Reflective practice: an instructional method that includes critical reflection to help learners gain awareness of their implicit knowledge base. Curriculum designers can incorporate reflective practice by combining opportunities to practice skills with opportunities to pause and reflect on their progress towards learning goals, cognitive responses, and skills application;
  • Intentional learning journeys to give learners the opportunity to learn new concepts and skills over time through practice. Authentic learning takes place over time, rather than at one discrete moment of a training programme. Learners with access to enabling conditions for learning – including critical reflection, feedback and support from peers – can develop the values, habits and self-reliance to become power learners;
  • Problem-based learning engages learners in solving relevant, real-world problems, building motivation and agency in the process. IREX’s Global Solutions Challenge helps faculty and students incorporate real-world, problem-based learning into the curriculum and challenges assumptions about where and how learning should happen. Real-world projects have the added benefits of providing concrete work-related experiences and building networks, which can help young people develop entrepreneurial mindsets to overcome barriers to earning and employment.

Practitioners can prepare young people for today’s challenges by prioritizing reflective practice in learning, intentionally structuring learning journeys over time and through student-led, instructor-supported problem-based learning. These approaches will build the leaders we need and will prepare all adolescents and young adults to learn, discern and earn.

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Education and SkillsJobs and the Future of Work
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