For better youth vocational training, ask the employers

By Jillian Slutzker

October 4, 2016

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The Afghanistan Workforce Development Program builds the capacity of local TVET institutes to conduct demand assessments to determine employers’ needs. Here Aniss Faiaz, former regional project coordinator for Society Empowerment Organization, speaks with employers. Photo by Jim Huylebroek.

The formula for eliminating the skills gaps between workforce supply and demand is straightforward: Equip the workforce with the skills employers need. To find out just what skills the private sector is looking for, ask them.

Salem Helali can attest to the efficacy of this demand-driven approach to workforce development. As Chief of Party for the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program, his team has placed more than 70 percent of its 27,000 graduates in mid-level positions or secured salary promotions with private sector employers.

“At the core of this program is to identify demand for [relevant] skills,” he explained in a session on assessing skills demand in post-conflict contexts at the 2016 Global Youth Economic Opportunities Summit on Sept. 30.

Organized by Making Cents International, the annual summit brings together influencers and implementers in the field of youth social and economic development. More than 480 youth development experts and practitioners from over 50 countries participated in the 2016 summit.

The Afghanistan Workforce Development Program—which is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International, along with local partners—is designed to fill Afghanistan’s skills gap with local mid-level employees. The program builds the capacity of technical and vocational training providers to assess employers’ needs and then jointly design curricula that prepares Afghans for those in-demand positions.

In a sea of prescriptive development programming, Helali said that the flexibility to build a market-based vocational training program tailored to actual employer needs, as reported by businesses, is the key to a successful workforce program.  Young people land jobs and employers, who play a key role in co-designing the curriculum, gain new staff skilled in their most in-demand areas.

“If you get the demand assessment right, if you speak to the demands of the employer, then there shouldn’t be any problem placing these people,” said Helali.

The program has to date placed thousands of youth in jobs in construction, healthcare education and other fields.

Rather than “off the shelf” training, the Afghanistan Workforce Development Program’s courses are designed by asking questions instead of starting with assumptions about the skills job-seekers should have, explained Nick Stevens, former Deputy Chief of Party for the program.

“We have to be strong in our ability to communicate that with donors,” he said.

Working with a post-conflict market

“If you get the demand assessment right, if you speak to the demands of the employer, then there shouldn’t be any problem placing these people.”

Salem Helali, Chief of Party, Afghanistan Workforce Development Program

Afghanistan’s economy is emblematic of many post-conflict countries. An influx of foreign aid and investment in the post-Taliban era meant a surge of employment opportunities for Afghans.

But as aid flows have dipped and foreign investments have dwindled, unemployment rates have climbed, a particularly detrimental trend in a country where 68 percent of the population is younger than age 25.

Given these financial and demographic pressures, the need for practical programming that meets the real and present needs of existing businesses and youth is critical, said Helali and Stevens.

“We focus on homegrown businesses,” said Stevens, noting that even in a post-conflict environment there are local businesses that are growing and report a shortage of skilled employees. “And we look at those gaps….to fill educational gaps where we can.”

Helali and Stevens hope the program’s demand-driven model will be adapted for other post-conflict and complex contexts to help economies, companies and young people rebound and thrive.

Beyond technical training: soft skills matter

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In a survey, Nicaraguan employers along the Caribbean Coast region reported the desire for prospective youth employees to have strong soft skills, such as good communication skills, in addition to technical capacitiies. Photo by Gretchen Robleto.

Beyond the cognitive and technical skills sought-after by employers, soft skills—competencies, behaviors, attitudes and qualities to navigate one’s environment—are increasingly recognized as pivotal to youth success in the job market, said panelists.

“The goal is to develop a whole person approach to job skills,” explained Hannah Lantos, Youth Development Research Scientist at Child Trends.

In a 2015 study, co-published with USAID and FHI360, Child Trends researchers revealed that five critical soft skills are most likely to raise a young person’s chances of job success and are heavily in-demand by employers. These include: social skills; communication; higher-order thinking skills; self-control; and positive self-concept.

Lantos teamed up with the Technical Vocational Education and Training Strengthening for At-Risk Youth program to conduct an employer demand assessment along Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast region, which is still recovering from years of civil war. The project is funded by USAID and implemented by Creative.

In the survey, employers consistently remarked that acquiring candidates with technical and cognitive skills was relatively easy. However, they reported more difficulty finding prospective employees with soft skills, like adapting to new situations, acting honestly and ethically and complying with social and business norms.

“Employers really care about these soft skills,” said Lantos, emphasizing the need to integrate these skills into a holistic youth workforce development approach.

Ultimately, explained Lantos and her fellow panelists, by doing demand assessments like these, donors and practitioners can design workforce development and vocational training programs that achieve their goals: more young people in jobs and more human capital to propel post-conflict and developing economies toward recovery and prosperity.

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