How can we tackle the skills shortage?
Education is available to more of the world’s young people than ever, as a result of a highly focused effort over the past few decades. In Africa alone, 8 to 10 million young people join the labour market every year, after 6 to 16 years of education. But a large majority are unemployable, at the same time industry is struggling with acute skill shortages at all levels.
How can this be the case? We all think highly of skills – we admire those we regard as ‘skilled’ at a particular activity and we see the most skilled as being at the top of their game. Yet when it comes to education, skills are often overlooked, underrated and even sometimes ignored. Our current educational metrics are also misguided: we measure success through pass rates rather than skills acquired. This has to change.
The end goal of education
Education is prized as a human right and seen as a rite of passage into adulthood, but we must never lose sight of the fact that its end goal should always be employability. To develop the workers of today and tomorrow, education systems need to teach skills at every level. In the age of digital commerce, tech skills need to be taught from an early age. From maths and science skills at school to communication skills in university, the youth of today need to be prepared for tomorrow’s labour market.
There are, of course, institutions where skills are valued above all else. Yet Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) forces students to make a choice between a general education and skills education, and has often become the default option for those who simply don’t do well at school.
The skills we need
Education systems first need to recognise that skills are for life and that the central purpose of education is to teach those skills. The skills need to be directly relevant to the labour market, today characterised by constant innovation, high competition, globalisation, technological changes and specialisation. Things move fast and skilled labour has to keep up with this incredibly rapid change; an outdated skill is of no use to anyone.
So how should we decide which skills we should be teaching?
The key considerations must be the mid and long term economic outlook. We must involve the labour market in determining education curricula and the starting point must be to assess country and region-specific economic needs and labour shortages.
Much of this curricula has already been created – the real challenge is threading it into local needs. Teachers must be trained to teach the right skills, and qualifications will need to be modified to assess skills rather than simple percentages. We will also need advocacy campaigns educating young people and their parents on labour market opportunities, and the appropriate skills needed to enter particular vocations. Finally, such skills will have to be formally integrated at all levels of education, from preschool to university, to develop the well-rounded individuals who can immediately participate in the labour market.
Fortunately, several countries have already started on this journey, but more must join and the pace of change must be increased to really address the growing skills shortage and meet the needs of both the labour market and youth of the future.