Commentary / World

The skills that youths will need to succeed in the 21st century

by Ruth Shapiro and Risa Pieters

Contributing Writers

What do youths, especially those from poor families, need to thrive in Asia today?

Twenty-six years ago, that question had an answer. Near-universal literacy acted as the fundamental driver of lifting an unprecedented number of people out of poverty, according to the World Bank 1993 report “The Asian Economic Miracle.” But now basic literacy is not enough to assure success in fast-moving, information-rich economies.

This is an especially pertinent challenge in Asia, where youth unemployment and underemployment are serious problems. Throughout Asia, according to the World Bank and the International Labor Organization, youth unemployment is three to four times higher than the overall rate.

Governments know they need to act to create jobs for young people, but clear and coordinated strategies are lacking. Government policies around skills for youths are spread across ministries and agencies and have little to do with one another. In fact, there are important disconnects between government agencies on what the problem is and how to address it. In a 2013 McKinsey & Co. global survey, 72 percent of education providers believed their graduates were workforce ready. Unfortunately, in the same survey only 42 percent of private sector respondents agreed with them.

What needs to be done?

Not surprisingly, there is no longer one answer. What is clear is that rote learning and traditional teaching methods are not sufficient to imbue young people with the technical and problem-solving skills, the necessary understanding and resilience, to cope with and thrive in a rapidly changing system. Youths now need not just technical know-how, but cognitive ability and life skills such as interpersonal communication, financial literacy, teamwork and creativity. They need broader sets of technological/STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills and often need entrepreneurial strength. Traditional school curricula struggle to provide it all.

Governments throughout Asia have advanced new schemes to provide young people with the skills they need, beyond literacy and traditional academic training. In 2017, China announced the Reform Plan for the Development of Industrial Workers and its focus on five sets of educational reforms, including ideological study, skills development, internet application, innovation and funding for workers’ personal development.

Japan’s white paper on children and young people in 2018 focuses on new skill development focused on entrepreneurship. Indonesia, with the highest youth unemployment in the region at 22 percent (in 2015), has tried to put in place more strategic initiatives building on the Indonesian Youth Employment Network, which was set up in partnership with the United Nations in 2003.

But given the variation of these skills, many of these efforts have been piecemeal, carried out by different government agencies and more often than not exist merely in the conceptual stage. Skills programs are just as likely to be championed by government ministries involved with job creation and innovation as education. In Malaysia, participation in team sports is considered integral to developing 21st century skills.

Corporate and private foundations are playing tremendous roles in demonstrating innovative ways to fill the gaps. The private sector also places a high value on skill development, for pragmatic as well as virtuous reasons, to advance a pool of potential employees equipped for a variety of challenges. Both individual and corporate philanthropists are providing vocational, technical and life skills throughout Asia. McKinsey, after issuing the 2013 report, created a nonprofit social enterprise called Generation to provide young people with skills in industries such as technology and health care.

In fact, there are a number of different ways in which companies and private foundations are getting involved. Globally, banks have made major commitments to advancing life skills and entrepreneurial training. In 2013, JP Morgan launched New Skills at Work, a five-year, $250 million global initiative to equip adults and youths with the skills needed to get on a solid career path. In 2019, building on this success, Morgan doubled down by adding $350 million in new funding. The Macquarie Group Foundation couples funding with Macquarie employees assisting grantee organizations in enhancing organizational efficacy and delivering more programs and services.

Over the past five years, the DBS Foundation has provided training directly and through intermediary partners to more than 200 social enterprises, building the skills of the founders and teams to run and grow the business.

Private funding also supports public school programs and curricula to improve new skill acquisition. In Thailand in 2008, the Mechai Viravaidya Foundation launched the Mechai Bambook School to supplement the standard curricula with entrepreneurship, creative problem solving, and coding. The school also serves as a community center where adults can receive similar training at night and on weekends. The Thai government is now rolling out the model in 100 more schools throughout the country.

Further creative approaches include the Djarum Foundation’s vocational schools initiative in Kudus, Indonesia, which establishes state-of-the-art vocational training in coding and animation, in addition to traditional vocational skills like maritime training. In Malaysia, Yayasan Hasanah’s MySkills Foundation provides vocational and life skills through existing schools to many youths, especially those considered high-risk.

In addition to life skills and critical thinking, today’s youth increasingly need digital literacy for many opportunities, prompting a rise in coding boot camps supported by corporate social responsibility partnerships. Plan International and Accenture offer their “Skills to Succeed” and “Solutions for Youth Employment” initiatives, and Microsoft partners with nonprofits in South Korea to train students and teachers in computer science skills that foster problem-solving and creativity; 150,000 students and 2,400 teachers have already participated. The nonprofit JA Korea runs “Be a Coding Hero,” a program run for hearing-impaired students. Google has supported First Code Academy in building programs in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Once again, these programs operate outside school systems and curricula.

Societies now need young people who learn and master the skills for a dynamic, tech savvy and globalized world. That skill set is more diverse than basic literacy, requiring new personal and professional abilities requiring specialized opportunities for learning. Increasingly, the private sector on its own or in collaboration with nonprofit organizations is stepping up to create programs to train today’s youths — and their countries — with the skills necessary for growth in the 21st century. It’s time for governments to catch up and work with these efforts to maximize their adaptation and deployment.

Ruth Shapiro is the CEO of and Risa Pieters is a research analyst at the Centre for Asian Philanthropy and Society in Hong Kong.

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