Education does not equal skills

by Julie Harris
Consultant, OECD Department of Education

Mapping skills at the European Youth Forum

I went back 25 years in time yesterday, as I sat with participants at the European Youth Forum, all young, vibrant, educated and driven. I felt as if I were at university with my daughter and 100 of her friends. We discussed the future, skills, and in particular, the skills mismatch, described by Andreas Schleicher as “a lot of unemployed graduates plus a lot of employers looking for skilled workers”.

At the eve of my own career 25 years ago, my current profession did not exist. The Internet did not exist. There were fewer graduates and fewer employers looking for skilled employees. Did we worry about getting jobs? Probably, but back then a degree was the passkey.

Today, as my daughter graduates from college in 2013, the debate for her as well as for the 120 participants we worked with today, centred around jobs, skills and education. Just what is the link? Does a degree guarantee a job? Less and less so. Does work experience play a role? Yes, but the youth in my breakout group felt that unpaid internships amounted to exploitation and rarely provided the learning originally intended. What about the “soft” skills that so many students report are not developed in traditional school settings: clear communication skills, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, collaboration, curiosity, critical thinking and technological skills? How do individuals best acquire these skills – which mean more to long-term professional success than purely occupational skills do – and what do we need to do as a society to develop, value and encourage such skill development?

As Andreas Schleicher pointed out in his introduction to yesterday’s session, we need to build strong generic skills (skills that cross contexts, such as reading, writing, problem-solving, communication and collaboration), better utilise talent pools and skill for future jobs.

So how do we go about that?

Some of the ideas participants in the session came up with were:

  1. Link studies to labour market demand. Should governments regulate entry into study programmes, for example when there is a skills surplus and a jobs deficit?
  2. Improve career counselling to students and involve parents. Help students and parents know what the jobs of the future will be, where some of the shortages may lie and what skills will best help them succeed.
  3. Provide internships/work experience opportunities on a parallel track along with university studies (as in the United States and France).
  4. Put more professional, practical skills training into university education. 
  5. Encourage entrepreneurship and innovation among youth: communicate that small-business owners are important actors in society and that there is room for thinking outside the box, across disciplines and beyond borders.
  6. Build skills locally (rather than outsourcing to cheaper providers).
  7. Keep in mind that skills mismatch can begin at school – tracking can lead to rigidity and close down broader skills development. 

In sum, and as one participant put it, skills is a complex issue. It is more than the ability to “do something” and bigger, much bigger than education alone. Education, both formal and informal, at school and in the workplace, gleaned young and old, is a vital piece of the skills puzzle, but education alone does not skills make.

Learn more:
European Youth Forum: Youth Employment: A Call for Change
OECD Skills Strategy
Participate in the 2012 OECD Global Youth Video Competition

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