Making the right connections

by Barbara Ischinger
Director for Education

It’s becoming clear to me that the crisis in youth unemployment around the world is not just one of the aftershocks of the global economic downturn, but may also have roots in education systems that are not adequately preparing students for 21st-century economies. I took that message to a regional conference on Promoting Youth Employment in North Africa,  held in Tunis in mid-July, where I presented not only the OECD Skills Strategy but also discussed the importance of improving the quality of education and of teachers, and of making quality education accessible to all.

Some 41% of 15-24 year-olds in Tunisia are unemployed – a statistic that is devastating in the present and potentially catastrophic for the future of the country and the region. In more than half of OECD countries, the rate of unemployment among young people approaches or exceeds 20%; and many of the underlying conditions are the same as those found in Tunisia. These include not only weak or stagnant economic growth, but education systems that cling to outdated policies and practices and are divorced from the labour market.

Today, education systems are expected to provide graduates not only with foundation skills and knowledge in given disciplines, but also with the skills needed to adapt to changing employment circumstances and to transfer what they have learned to different environments – what are known as generic skills. To do this effectively, there has to be more co-operation between education systems and industry. Without dialogue, education systems will not know which skills are in demand in the labour market, while prospective employers will not know whether graduates are leaving education with the skills they are looking for. Employers, too, have to be willing to invest in further training for their employees; and policy makers need to provide fiscal incentives to make it attractive for employers to do so.

But equally important, education systems need to adopt more innovative, project-focused teaching methods, particularly in science, to spark students’ curiosity and involvement. I’m encouraged to see this already happening in many places: from France’s La Main à la Pâte programme, developed by the French Academy of Sciences, which aims to reinvigorate a hands-on approach to the teaching of science in elementary schools, to the Agastya International Foundation, which dispatches mobile science labs throughout rural India, to the science education company  founded by Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, who died last month, whose aim is to develop and support young girls’ and boys’ interest in science, math and technology.

There are – and will be – many more of these kinds of initiatives. Their value is not only that they help to make science more meaningful to students, but they can also help to make the important connection between what students learn in school and how that knowledge and those skills can be used effectively in the wider world. And if we can also make more connections between education systems and employers, then we may be able to help more young people fulfil their potential – and help more societies prosper – by creating a better match between young people’s skills and the jobs that propel economies.

OECD Skills Strategy
Related blog posts:
“Creativity” is spelled with a “why”
Understanding youth, unemployment and skills in Africa
Photo credit: Stack of pebbles / Shutterstock

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