Education does not equal skills

by Julie Harris
Consultant, OECD Department of Education

Mapping skills at the European Youth Forum
I went back 25 years in time yesterday, as I sat with participants at the European Youth Forum, all young, vibrant, educated and driven. I felt as if I were at university with my daughter and 100 of her friends. We discussed the future, skills, and in particular, the skills mismatch, described by Andreas Schleicher as “a lot of unemployed graduates plus a lot of employers looking for skilled workers”.

At the eve of my own career 25 years ago, my current profession did not exist. The Internet did not exist. There were fewer graduates and fewer employers looking for skilled employees. Did we worry about getting jobs? Probably, but back then a degree was the passkey.

Today, as my daughter graduates from college in 2013, the debate for her as well as for the 120 participants we worked with today, centred around jobs, skills and education. Just what is the link? Does a degree guarantee a job? Less and less so. Does work experience play a role? Yes, but the youth in my breakout group felt that unpaid internships amounted to exploitation and rarely provided the learning originally intended. What about the “soft” skills that so many students report are not developed in traditional school settings: clear communication skills, emotional intelligence, problem-solving, collaboration, curiosity, critical thinking and technological skills? How do individuals best acquire these skills – which mean more to long-term professional success than purely occupational skills do – and what do we need to do as a society to develop, value and encourage such skill development?

As Andreas Schleicher pointed out in his introduction to yesterday’s session, we need to build strong generic skills (skills that cross contexts, such as reading, writing, problem-solving, communication and collaboration), better utilise talent pools and skill for future jobs.

So how do we go about that?

Some of the ideas participants in the session came up with were:
  1. Link studies to labour market demand. Should governments regulate entry into study programmes, for example when there is a skills surplus and a jobs deficit?
  2. Improve career counselling to students and involve parents. Help students and parents know what the jobs of the future will be, where some of the shortages may lie and what skills will best help them succeed.
  3. Provide internships/work experience opportunities on a parallel track along with university studies (as in the United States and France).
  4. Put more professional, practical skills training into university education. 
  5. Encourage entrepreneurship and innovation among youth: communicate that small-business owners are important actors in society and that there is room for thinking outside the box, across disciplines and beyond borders.
  6. Build skills locally (rather than outsourcing to cheaper providers).
  7. Keep in mind that skills mismatch can begin at school – tracking can lead to rigidity and close down broader skills development. 
In sum, and as one participant put it, skills is a complex issue. It is more than the ability to “do something” and bigger, much bigger than education alone. Education, both formal and informal, at school and in the workplace, gleaned young and old, is a vital piece of the skills puzzle, but education alone does not skills make.

Learn more:
European Youth Forum: Youth Employment: A Call for Change
OECD Skills Strategy
Participate in the 2012 OECD Global Youth Video Competition


iwacairns said…
There's too many people leaving university with a 'nonsense' degree in one or more of the social sciences. How many people with a degree in this area of expertise actually go on to work in this area? This is where the problem is arising, too many young people taking the easy option and not actually achieving a vocational degree like teaching; vet med; doctor; engineer etc.
Many of the graduates of social sciences then go on to do further degrees, or fast track in jobs that bear no semblance to the degree that they sat, like retail management.....or am I just a cynic?
Javier Elías said…
Higher education institutions have to make an effort to reformulate the careers they offer and their respective curricula, with the aim of having a closer connection with the current job market and their needs, thus encouraging the employability and development.

According to Andres Oppenheimer, a renowned journalist and political analyst for Latin America, in this part of the world there is a gap between the professions and the labor needs. The universities and institutes are not being updated quickly enough; therefore they lose the link with business.

There is a big proliferation in the humanities careers -which do not need further economic investment- thus displacing other career opportunities such as agriculture and fisheries engineering, careers related to technology development, medicine, etc.
Julie Harris said…
Many thanks to both of you for your comments. As you point out, we did discuss the mismatch between labour demand and skills during our session this week. Our breakout group felt it would be helpful if governments (and others) could help communities of students and parents know where the shortages will be going forward, and where the surplus will be - to inform choices. With regard to studying social sciences, my feeling is that soft sciences can prepare students for a wide career field - allowing them to switch fields if and when the market demands or new careers arise. But I take your point that in some countries we are seeing shortages that could perhaps be addressed by guiding students toward specific vocations. In the United States, I've been reading about a looming information sciences shortage and the need to encourage more students to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
Interesting and important information. It is really beneficial for us. Thanks

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