Tackling Youth Unemployment with 21st Century Skills

World of Work May 07, 2018

In 2017, a science teacher at Happy Days Primary and Nursery School in Najjera, Uganda, a town on the outskirts of Kampala, noticed that a large number of her students were missing school due to typhoid. She taught her students about the importance of handwashing in disease prevention but when they asked the school administration for more water taps to be installed outside the toilets, they found it was too expensive.
At the same time, a group of students at the school was taking part in the School Enterprise Challenge, an international business program for schools run by the charity Teach A Man To Fish. Eager to curb such preventable diseases at their school, the students saw an opportunity to create a business with a sustainable, positive impact. The solution they came up with was ‘Tippy Taps’, portable handwashing stations easily made from locally sourced or recycled materials. Their student-led business selling handmade taps in the community not only improved hygiene but also had a profit margin of 66%, part of these proceeds allowing them to provide elderly community members with free taps.
Beyond providing the students with an opportunity to solve an immediate challenge, the hands-on business experience gained through the School Enterprise Challenge required the students to think beyond the classroom. Along the way, they improved their business knowledge and entrepreneurship skills. However, more than this, they took leadership roles, worked as a team, became proficient problem-solvers and built their self-confidence –  all important 21st century skills to further assist them in life after school.
Also known as soft skills, 21st century skills are abilities needed to succeed in today’s world. These skills include the 4 C’s (creativity, collaboration, communication, critical thinking) but also skills such as initiative and leadership.
The School Enterprise Challenge guides and supports students to develop 21st century skills through planning, setting up and running a profitable and sustainable school business. In these businesses, students take the lead and generate profits providing much-needed resources for their school or supporting an important local cause.
Students have built a girls’ washroom at their school with profits from a tailoring business and others have restored local streets through a paving company. By providing a space in which challenges are welcome and failure is an opportunity to try again and grow, The School Enterprise Challenge enables young people to be in charge of their own entrepreneurial journey and become confident in the skills they develop for starting a business.
In the face of rising youth unemployment, there is a global conversation around the need for young people to develop a skill set while still in school, that might enable them to gain decent employment and create their own jobs once they leave school. This is particularly relevant in Africa where an estimated 11 million young people enter a job force each year with only 3 million jobs available.  Raising a generation able to take action and create employment for themselves is a 21st century challenge that cannot be tackled with an approach to education designed for the 19th or 20th centuries. It needs new skills: 21st century skills.
There are no silver bullets for ensuring that young people develop 21st century skills. This requires a joint approach from all sectors: governments, NGOs, educators and communities. At the national policy level, efforts to integrate 21st century skills into school are gaining momentum. Rwanda and Senegal, for example, have launched work-readiness and skill development programs for secondary schools. Non-profit organizations are also working on the ground, providing hands-on programs teaching 21st century skills through entrepreneurship and financial literacy.
Entrepreneurship, in particular, is a powerful vehicle for teaching 21st century skills because it offers young people a platform to gain skills through real-life experience. What’s more, many qualities of successful entrepreneurs such as determination and creative thinking overlap with 21st century skills.
The Private Education Development Network (PEDN) is an organization in Uganda working to enhance students’ 21st century skills through financial literacy programs. PEDN introduces students to techniques for budgeting as well as saving and financial planning. This enables students to see first-hand how small steps like saving and budgeting can impact their lives.
While gaining 21st century skills is increasingly recognized as important, it is often hampered by a lack of common definitions as to what these skills are, and how to reliably measure them. Moreover, having a clear understanding of what progress in each skill looks like is a huge help to students as part of their learning process. UK NGO Enabling Enterprise’s Skills Builder is an innovative tool which does just this. The Skills Builder framework breaks down eight key skills and provides a system for teachers to teach these skills and, along with their students, track learners’ growth in these areas. Involving students in the assessment helps students gain a deeper understanding of these skills, assess how they are progressing in their own skills development and identify ways in which they can improve.
Like literacy or numeracy, young people best develop 21st century skills when they are introduced early on and practiced regularly, yet the challenge to integrate 21st century skills into classrooms around the world still remains. Without teacher training, or adapting school curricula, timetables and teaching assessments, soft skill development will remain a secondary objective within traditional subject areas, or shunted to after school activities. 
Instead, imagine a classroom in which students use creative business ideas to improve their communities, learn about financial literacy in math class and know that delivering a presentation will help build their communication and confidence skills. When they leave school, students feel confident in their skillset and are better equipped for today’s workforce or to start their own business, earn a decent income and even employ more people in their communities. Not only is this scenario possible, it is happening in small pockets with the potential to be widespread. It’s time for 21st century skills to be at the forefront of education systems, giving every student the chance to develop the tools to succeed in today’s world.