Young People on the Move: The Importance of Transferable Skills

Yesterday the world observed International Youth Day, although one has to glance no further than the daily front page of a newspaper to be reminded of both the promise and vulnerability of the largest cohort of our population.  This year’s theme focused on migrant youth, a group of young people who, despite the fact that they are a growing segment of the population, are often overlooked by programs, services and policies.  Today, young people represent over 10 percent of the world’s 214 million international migrants.

Young people migrate for a host of reasons.  Some leave their homes voluntarily in search of better lives—opportunities to go to school, secure jobs or live with family members.  Some are forced to move due to marriages or to escape war, disaster or other hardships.  Regardless of the reason, while migration is often associated with challenges and risks that present themselves in the journey and during the settlement phase in a new home, it also provides windows of opportunities for young people.  This is particularly true for young women and men fleeing crisis situations.

Around the world today, over 75 million people are displaced as a result of war or natural disaster.  This is equivalent to the entire population of Turkey.  An estimated 33 percent of them are between the ages of 10 and 24.  One of the most shocking facts about their displacement is that it doesn’t last for just a year or two.  Young people are displaced, on average, for 17 years—their entire childhood.  The vast majority of displaced children and youth end up missing out on opportunities to go to school and build the foundation needed for a healthy, productive adulthood.  Today, more than half of all children who are out of school worldwide live in countries affected by conflict placing them at a greater risk for displacement.

In far too many refugee camps, urban settlements or internally displaced communities around the world, young people sit idle, missing out on years of schooling and opportunities to learn valuable skills to improve their lives.  This is a wasted opportunity.  Displacement should not be seen as a time when a young person’s life is put on hold; instead, it should be approached as an opportunity to impart vital life, cognitive and job-readiness skills to an audience eager to study and learn to the same degree as their peers in other parts of the world. 

Yesterday’s celebrations reminded us that the picture isn’t all bleak and grim.  The good news is that more and more displaced young women and men are finding their way to school, participating in accelerated learning programs to re-enter the school system or job training programs linked to apprenticeships.  In some circumstances, this is due to the political will of governments or the generosity of host countries, as well as to the laudable efforts of international partners such as the Inter-Agency Network for Education in Emergencies (INEE), the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR,) and others.  Primarily, however, when displaced youth make it to school against all odds, it is due to the determination of the young people themselves, their family members and communities.  

Despite the fact that education is a basic human right, and arguably one of the best investments that a country can make for its peace and prosperity, it remains severely underfunded by the global aid community, accounting for less than two percent of all humanitarian assistance.  No other sector consistently ranks as the least-funded or has a smaller share of humanitarian appeals funded. 

The challenge is not merely one of resources but also a question of what skills displaced youth should learn.  While in transit, it is often unclear what their future may hold:  Will they remain in camps or urban settlements, return back home to their previous communities or be sent to a third country?  In each of these different scenarios, which curriculum should be used (and in what language of instruction) and, perhaps most fundamentally, what knowledge, skills and capabilities will these youth need most for the labor market?

A survey by McKinsey & Company of employers in nine countries found that almost 60 percent of employers could not find enough skilled entry-level employees.  One solution to this challenge is to ensure that young people are equipped with transferable skills—skills that can be applied to various labor markets or settings.  Transferable skills, including foundational literacy and numeracy skills, as well as the ability to work in teams and to be critical think and problem-solvers, are qualities that benefit all young people regardless of their gender, income level or location of residence. 

Another four-year, eight country study conducted by the Women’s Refugee Commission found that—in settings as diverse as Darfur; Amman, Jordan; and Phoenix, Arizona—young people required a similar package of training in transferable and entrepreneurial skills, such as financial literacy, marketing and employability skills (including time management and communication skills). 

Two efforts currently underway to define these transferable skills and situate them in the broader needs of youth learning are the U.N. secretary-general’s Global Education First Initiative and the Learning Metrics Task Force.  Launched in September 2012, the Global Education First Initiative is the secretary-general’s five-year advocacy campaign to garner more international attention and support for education.  The initiative has three goals: to get all children in school, to improve the quality of education and to foster global citizenship.  The goal of global citizenship sees education as playing a “central role in helping people to forge more just, peaceful, tolerant and inclusive societies.  It must give people the understanding, skills and values they need to cooperate in resolving the interconnected challenges of the 21st century.” 

For all youth, but particularly for those living in crisis-affected regions (whether due to conflict or natural disaster), global citizenship has the potential to transform youth learning, workforce participation and overall youth participation in social and political processes.

The Learning Metrics Task Force (LMTF), an initiative co-convened by the Center for Universal Education at Brookings and UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics, is beginning a global conversation on how to define and measure global citizenship.  After an 18 month long global process that involved more than 1,700 people from 110 countries (70 percent of which are located in the global south), the LMTF identified six areas of measurement tracking learning outcomes at the global level to fill the global data gap on learning.  Two of these areas of measurement—1) exposure to a breadth of learning opportunities across all seven learning domains and 2) an adaptable, flexible skill set to meet the demands of the 21st century—get to the heart of the demand for a youth generation of global citizens equipped with transferable skills.  As the LMTF wraps up its global consultation next month on what learning should be measured and how to do so at a global level, they will work with the Youth Advocacy Group of the Global Education First Initiative to delve specifically into the challenge of defining and measuring global citizenship. 

For millions of migrant young people worldwide, many of whom are outside the education system or workforce, ensuring that they have transferable skills that can be applied to a variety of labor markets will lessen the impact of displacement and better equip them to lead healthy, safe and productive lives.  While International Youth Day is a good reminder of the importance and potential of youth, let’s use the other 364 days of the year to act on the words of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and “maximize the development potential of youth migration”.