Education for Life: The Promise of 21st Century Skills

By Claudia Salazar Suarez

January 10, 2023   |   0 comments

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“Why should my children bother with education if they can’t find a job? – better to work at a carshop and learn real work skills – a diploma won’t feed him” declared my taxi driver in Honduras on a recent trip, as my heart sunk knowing that while dignified and necessary work, his kids’ chances for social mobility were probably null.  

 In a very different part of the world, a young student takes the floor at the British Youth Parliament and recites the quadratic formula to a perplexed audience before affirming that the education system is failing young people. “For years we’ve been calling for a curriculum for life…we are pleading for more emphasis on employability, communication skills, and personal wellbeing…I have no idea what I want to be when I grow up, but go on, Madam Deputy Speaker, ask me, and I’ll tell you all about the quadratic formula.” 

Paradoxically, on the other side of the spectrum, companies are struggling to find the talent they need. But as technology creates new jobs and destroys others at an exhilarating rate – with mindboggling projections showing that 85% of jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yetHow can education systems respond to a job market in constant change, reduce inequalities in opportunities, and give youth a fighting chance? 

Here lies the challenge and its unique opportunity: no one actor can solve this alone — and we know it. Governments can’t invest in education systems at the insatiable pace needed to meet private sector demands; private companies can’t take on the provision of all education and training in societies, and students and employees can’t be expected to pursue life-long learning to build and update skills if they don’t have access or motivation to do so. 

The answer governments, private companies, and education practitioners are banking on: 21st century skills. Cross-cutting skills such as adaptability, entrepreneurship, collaboration, perseverance, communication, problem solving, and creativity are becoming increasingly critical for employers and employees alike. 

In this spirit, earlier this month Creative joined the Inter-American Development Bank’s 21st Century Skills Coalition alongside 54 multilateral, public, private, and social actors committed to strengthening learning ecosystems in Latin American and the Caribbean for youth to acquire transversal skills. 

 As Creative’s President & CEO, Leland Kruvant noted in announcing our new partnership, the Coalition’s pledge aligns with our mission – to support people around the world to realize the positive change they seek – and “we are directly supporting youth in the hemisphere to gain the necessary ingredients for success.”   

Why now, and why it is key for youth in Latin America and the Caribbean: 

 A 2019 IDB publication, “The Future is Now: Transversal Skills in LAC in the 21st Century,” provides insights into the urgency for all actors to join forces to meet this complex challenge. Here are a few highlights: 

  • Skills gaps and talent shortages: Across sectors and countries, employers cannot find the people they need with the right blend of technical (or hard skills), and human (or soft skills). This is a particular challenge in Latin America, which has the largest skills gap in the world (WEF – available in Spanish).  
  • The advent of technology is driving rapid change and leading to uncertain labor markets: Estimates indicate that on average 50 percent of jobs in LAC are at high risk of automation, with countries like Guatemala facing a potential for 75% of jobs to be automated in the near future.   
  • Risk of exacerbating regional inequalities: Less qualified workers will suffer the most from automation, as disruptive technologies will gradually displace workers, especially those who carry out tasks that require a lower qualification level. This implies that while new technologies will generate wealth for the better-off, they will also disproportionately displace the most vulnerable workers.   
  • Education systems need to evolve: The most significant challenge that countries in the LAC region face in education is no longer about access (in most cases), but about retention (many students in the region drop out of school) and relevance (what and how they learn). Individuals need to be equipped with a set of skills that will help them learn throughout their lives to compete in a constantly changing labor market.  
  • The role of teachers in developing socioemotional skills: While most education systems in LAC recognize the importance of developing socioemotional skills in their normative frameworks and curricula, they often lack a clear approach to implementing programs and measuring impact. In addition, teachers often lack the skills and the pedagogical tools needed to develop these abilities in their students. Finally, many schools do not have the capacity or the resources to introduce extracurricular activities that are often associated with developing these skills. Recommendations include incorporating socioemotional skill development into the curriculum for traditional subjects and ensuring that teachers acquire relevant skills during pre-service and in-service training. 
  •  High migration and increasing diversity: Displacement and migration are making our societies increasingly heterogeneous, which increases the level of tension and can lead to conflict. This shift to more diverse societies calls for efforts to bolster individuals’ openness, empathy for others, tolerance, and conflict resolution.   
Students at YSET Beneficiary School, Centro Escolar Nestor Salamanca, Nestor Salamanca school, Cojutepeque, El Salvador

Creative’s distinct experience and potential contributions to the Coalition 

Creative’s role as an implementer of development projects for over 45 years brings a valuable first-hand perspective to the work of the Coalition. Through our work in some of the most complex environments in the world, we have seen learners thrive when provided with support beyond academics, recognizing that learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum and that we need to address individuals’ socioemotional needs to ensure learning outcomes. Relevant interventions include support to formal and nonformal education, integrating social and emotional learning in curricula, drop-out prevention, vocational training, youth employment services, crime and violence/gang prevention, youth-led civic engagement, and addressing the challenges imposed by irregular migration. 

Creative also brings valuable experiences, learnings, and findings from USAID’s community of implementing partners. Particularly relevant to the Coalition’s efforts is USAID’s Positive Youth Development (PYD) approach, which coincides on the need to teach transferable skills and knowledge to youth to support positive outcomes across sectors. While often focused on more traditional types of assets — such as technical, vocational, and academic skills— the combination of traditional assets with transferable competencies, including socioemotional and problem-solving skills, is a determining and differentiating factor of PYD as a holistic approach.  

Creative is aligned, committed and positioned to collaborate with partners as a member of the 21st Century Skills Coalition and looks forward to engaging further with its new allies in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

 Claudia Salazar Suarez  is Senior Technical Manager, Latin America and Caribbean Specialist in the Education for Development Division.  

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