Investing in the youth

Wanted: ice cream salesperson, minimum 2 years college.” This job ad and countless like it typify the disconnect between lofty policy goals and real-world challenges to human capital development. As leaders talked about investing in the youth in the recently concluded World Economic Forum (WEF) on the Asean in Cambodia, every day jobseekers are questioning whether one really needs calculus to scoop ice cream in the summer heat. The solution to bridging this gap is simple: Companies need to start hiring based on skills, not credentials, and societies need to invest in useful job information.

The theme of this year’s WEF on the Asean bent to future-proofing: “Youth, Technology and Growth: Securing Asean’s Digital and Demographic Dividends.” This makes sense given that more than half of the population of Asean is under 30 years old; in the Philippines, it was about 60 percent in 2016. However, youth unemployment relative to overall unemployment is notoriously high in the region. The youth comprise 44 percent of the total unemployed in the Philippines. If the unemployed youth were to suddenly move to one province, its population would be just under that of Bohol.

Commentaries have abounded on how the education system and investments need to be rethought, restrategized, and intensified in the context of the world facing the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Recommendations ranged from 21st-century skills curriculum and importance of life and core skills to activities like apprenticeships and emphasis on technical-vocational training.

These proposals are not wrong, for indeed education systems should ensure employability and instill civic-mindedness and good citizenship. They are also all supply-side interventions that take a long time to implement if only because it takes a while to teach skills.

But in our work at the Philippine Business for Education, we found that demand-side policies are more practicable because they follow business time frames—i.e., short implementation cycles and long-term vision. Importantly, demand highly influences supply behavior. We argue that the private sector holds the keys to youth investment and human capital development: hiring and information.

Bringing it closer to reality, when employers change their hiring needs, families and youth’s educational investments tend to follow suit. Thus, human resources managers should stop with the minimum credential requirements in job ads. Instead of saying “college graduate,” emphasize the need for someone who can effectively communicate, work in teams, and think critically—skills that are purportedly needed in the 21st-century workplace.

Investments in a robust information system on jobs of the future should be made. The Filipino youth are tech-savvy and becoming more in control of what they want to do in life. They care self-starters and career charters; imagine what they can do with the information right at their fingertips. Rather than going to a nearby university to take up business administration in order to get a bank teller job that merely pays minimum wage, a young talented carpenter would seriously consider taking up a technical course in construction. Maybe she would instead get an apprenticeship given the knowledge that highly skilled construction professionals earn more than minimum wage and have upward prospects.

When people talk jobs in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the conclusion is always about how people should prepare skills-wise. It should not be limited to this, for families positively react to good demand-side signals. Therefore, serious policymakers and the private sector concerned about future-proofing should explore ways to hire based on skills and getting the right information to young Filipinos. Perhaps then we can concretely stem this obsession with degrees and skills mismatch in the workplace that everyone merely complains about.

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