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Making Cents Conference: A Softer Focus — Looking Beyond Traditional Workforce Development

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Guest blogger Susie Armitage is a Senior Program Officer at IREX focusing on youth development programs that build soft skills. To learn more about her work, subscribe to her blog.

Only a third of youth in the Arab world believe their education has prepared them to get a job, according to a recent study by the Education for Employment Foundation. Not surprisingly, employers there say only a third of newly hired graduates are actually ready for work.

“What are universities actually teaching students to DO?” cried an employee tweeting for Making Cents International during Friday’s panel on Youth Economic Opportunity in the MENA Region. ‘Not much’ seems to be the glaring answer.

Where theory, not practice, is the foundation for a degree, the systemic reforms needed to improve the relevance and quality of education can take years. This is time the Arab world cannot afford to lose—exorbitant levels of youth unemployment cost the region $40-50 million annually.

Yet as David Arkless of Manpower noted, many employers will invest in vocational training if young hires have the right attitude and key “soft skills” like the ability to work in teams, communicate with peers and supervisors, resolve conflict, and analyze problems. Soft skills can be acquired in a number of ways, whether through rigorous education built around relevant, project-based learning; participation in volunteer projects and internships; or part of a specific job training program.

Soft skills need to be built into any youth employment initiative, and funders also need to look more broadly at youth programs that develop these skills but may not be specifically titled “workforce development programs.” There are a range of donor-funded programs in the conflict mitigation, health, democracy and governance, and other technical sectors that develop soft skills, such as the UNFPA’s Y-PEER network, PeacePlayers International’s sport for development initiatives, and IREX’s own programs promoting youth community engagement in Lebanon.

Civic participation in the Arab world is abysmally low—only about 5 percet of young people volunteer, according to Making Cents panelist Awais Sufi of the International Youth Foundation. I see room for opportunity here, since data shows volunteer work develops both soft skills and the peer networks Arkless named as powerful keys to a first job. Nearly 70 percent of youth volunteering through the USAID-funded Youth Development Competencies Program in Russia said their involvement helped them gain professional skills—most notably public speaking and project management.

As we work together on the “triage effort” Sufi prescribed for the Arab world’s youth unemployment crisis, let’s keep in mind that opportunities for workforce development are all around us.