The Value of Life Skills for Businesses & Youth Employment

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This article originally appeared in The Case for Urgent Action on Youth Employment, published by Peace Child International and the Parliamentary Network on the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and released in coordination with the 2018 Global Parliamentary Conference and the World Bank Spring Meeting.

Can you think of an employer or industry that would want to hire someone who doesn’t work well in teams, isn’t responsible, and can’t creatively problem-solve? Whether you use the term life skills, social-emotional learning, soft skills, or non-cognitive skills, everyone needs to be equipped with these competencies to succeed on the job and in life. However, while millions of young people want to work and long to contribute, employers struggle to find candidates with the non-technical skills they require. An investment in life skills aligns youth and employer needs, translating to business value and progress on youth employment.

Labor and workforce gurus today speak often of a skills mismatch, specifically those tied to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). True, but another, more subtle gap, in life skills, persists. Companies increasingly have made it clear they want to fill positions with people equipped with these competencies. In a Wall Street Journal survey, 90 percent of employers said “soft skills” were as or more important than technical skills, but 89 percent said they had a hard time finding candidates with the right mix. IYF created its Passport to Success® life skills training and curriculum to prepare young people to fulfill their potential as confident, responsible team players who can succeed in creating their own opportunities or in the workforce. 

Through more than a decade of adapting and refining PTS in 40-plus countries and more than 20 languages, IYF has seen the value of life skills across industries and countries. “I realized how much I learned about dealing with clients’ needs, teamwork, and coming in on time,” says Sathia, a young woman from St. Lucia who trained in life skills as part of IYF’s regional Caribbean Youth Empowerment Program (CYEP) in partnership with USAID. Globally, IYF has seen life skills training reduce drop-out rates, help young people find their voice and identify their goals, and improve work readiness.

“PTS teaches us how to live, to enter the world of employability, to prep for a job interview, and to write a curriculum vitae,” says Helena, a student in IYF’s Escholhas initiative in partnership with Mozal in Mozambique. “We become different not only at school, but at home too. PTS is transformation.”

Life skills training has played an integral role in IYF’s co-designed initiatives and partnerships with leading global companies as diverse as Caterpillar, Cummins, Chevron, PepsiCo, and Hilton. In such instances, life skills training has been applied in a workshop floor setting with heavy machinery; in complement to hands-on STEM training; and in a hospitality setting. A Hilton survey shows that 80 percent of participants in PTS training had better communication, teamwork, and conflict management skills and more respect and confidence.

So, are life skills measurable? IYF’s answer is a clear yes, and with scientific rigor. IYF has partnered with testing company ACT to create an assessment of work readiness using the latest in non-cognitive testing. Slated to be available in late 2018, it will be a unique resource for employers, schools, training institutions, youth-serving organizations, and young people themselves. The assessment will measure the impact of soft skills training programs—not just IYF’s PTS curriculum. 

This learning and measurement become even more critical when considered in the context of the future of work— these days a frequent topic of debate, worry, and sometimes dire predictions. While we cannot know exactly what lies ahead, research already indicates that the hardest skills for employers to find are those that can’t be performed by machines. Cited among these is creativity, which matters as a life skill for the way it allows us to navigate the shifts inherent in our modern world with flexibility, persistence, and empathy. All life skills are complementary and inter-dependent. Creativity in particular is closely tied to complex problem-solving—cited in the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report as the most important skill needed to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution. Much also is written today about the resilience of societies and communities. For a young person wanting to enter the workplace and then be relevant for the next 50 years, grit and resilience will be essential.

In the context of this period in time’s rapid change and unpredictability, life skills’ relevance and transferability across industries carries particular value. Although the consequences differ, good communication matters whether you are using heavy machinery or coordinating with coworkers behind a reception desk. Someone pursuing a career in STEM needs the same self-confidence to persist despite obstacles that anyone in an office setting or self-employment track requires for success. 

Consider 21-year-old Thumeka in South Africa, whose life skills training sets her apart. She has completed PTS training and is pursuing a career in the male-dominated automotive industry. “She communicates well and displays a mature work ethic,” her supervisor says. “Thumeka is also able to set goals and prioritize very effectively. Those are the employees you are looking for in a business today. They’re very rare.” 

In Kenya’s growing construction industry, life skills training again pays benefits for employers. “In most cases, you get an experienced mason with very good technical skills but a very bad attitude,” explains one site manager. He hired four graduates of the Sport for Kenyan Youth Employment initiative, led by IYF in partnership with Barclays Bank. He praises their hard work, leadership, and safety compliance and plans to employ them on his next project.

When formal sector hiring is not a reliable way to earn an income, life skills training prepares young people to navigate uncertainty and succeed in creating their own livelihoods and opportunities. In partnership with DFID, USAID, and the Embassy of Sweden, IYF’s Zimbabwe:Works (Z:W) initiative trained nearly 29,000 young people, 61 percent of whom were women, in life skills, financial literacy, and business development. To achieve these results, Z:W engaged local organizations and 745 private sector partners. Of youth who trained in life skills and completed Z:W-organized internships, 80 percent were placed in full-time employment. 

Devoting time and resources to developing young people’s life skills also serves business needs beyond the entry-level employee. With time and experience, a 20-year-old with life skills will be even better equipped at 30 and 40. Research shows that these skills, including being able to resolve conflict or work independently and collaboratively, become increasingly valuable as a young person progresses in her career. Employers also can see a return on investment from life skills training in terms of retention, performance, and professional advancement. According to the Hilton survey, after six months 96 percent of people trained in PTS were still with Hilton, and 40 percent had been promoted.  

To ensure even more young people around the world can access life skills training, IYF is pursuing a multi-sector online version of PTS. Having previously created PTS for Hospitality online in partnership with Hilton, IYF seeks to use technology to allow greater numbers of young people to achieve their full potential. We want to hear more stories like that of Mithun, a participant in an IYF initiative in India, who attributes his current position at a local technology company to his life skills training. “This is how I got the job: discipline, punctuality, working in a team, working hard,” he says.

In 2030, the timeframe for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), today’s teenagers will be in their 30s. To eradicate extreme poverty and achieve SDG 8.5—full and productive employment for all, including youth— the world needs to create opportunities for 1 billion young people to enter the workforce. As the anecdotes shared here collectively demonstrate, equipping young people with in-demand life skills prepares them on the pathway to a job or first livelihood, and then a lifetime of work. Life skills can take a young man or woman to 2040, 2050, and 2060.

Making this progress on the skills gap and youth unemployment and underemployment requires a concerted cross-sectoral effort. Working together—the public sector, training and apprenticeships programs, private business, philanthropies, and foreign aid agencies—we can ensure more young people reach their full potential.

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