How Companies Can Help to Bridge the Global Skills Gap

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17 December 2012 – With the world’s major economies still stuttering, and recent figures suggesting that growth in Asia’s emerging economies has slowed, it’s not a surprise that jobs are back on the agenda. Questions are being asked as to how tens of millions of jobs will be maintained – jobs that have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Making headway in the jobs arena will require different actors within society (government, global companies, civil society, external agencies and individuals) working together in a complementary way that often seems beyond their scope.
Individual companies can make a difference, even if large-scale societal change proves elusive. Whether through a more egalitarian approach to recruitment, rejecting corruption or taking steps themselves to build their employees’ skills, employers can play their part. In the process, they can show that they are a potent force for social good.
Indeed, the skills gap is at the heart of the employment challenge for many young people. It’s also of direct relevance to companies aspiring to grow their operations.
Earlier this year, GlobeScan was commissioned by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to conduct a series of focus groups for its 2012 Global Monitoring Report about young people, education and job skills. We spoke to more than 100 young people from impoverished and marginalized communities in Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, the U.K. and Vietnam. We aimed to get a better understanding of their experiences with developing job skills – and identify gaps between their skill sets and those required to find jobs. We also asked the youth what could be done for those in their peer group to attain these skills. And we also sought to uncover barriers to gaining job skills.
Understanding these youth perspectives is key for global companies interested in developing a thriving workforce for the future.
When GlobeScan finished our focus group discussions, we took away a powerful sense that the issue of education and skills would only grow in importance as the global economy continues to struggle and the needs of employers evolve.
We know through our regular tracking of global public attitudes that jobs and skills development are among the topics that most preoccupy people — particularly in the developing world.
While there is a need for companies to make their operations more environmentally sustainable, there is also a strong demand for them to make long-term commitments for cohesive and sustainable communities by investing in people.
“The biggest problem is of unemployment — in the absence of employment, what can poor people do for living?” a young person in India told us. “Even educated people who have degrees don’t get jobs.”

Problems, barriers to employment are interconnected

The problems and barriers faced by young people in finding gainful employment are interconnected. In many of the countries we studied, the state was not sufficiently involved in addressing these problems and civil society was disempowered to do so. State education was often underfunded, and teachers demotivated.
If there was a consistently held view that the state should step in to help young people make their way in the job market, there was very little faith – particularly in countries like Ethiopia – that it would do so. The young people we spoke to often felt they were on their own.
These challenges present opportunities for the private sector to step in. If companies take the attitude of investing in a community — rather than simply recruiting a workforce — they would make headway towards bridging this gap.
While employers complain of a skills gap, the young people we spoke to rarely saw their own problems in securing stable employment as being primarily as a result of not possessing skills. Some felt that English language skills or computer knowledge would help. More often, though, they saw a lack of work experience in itself as a barrier towards getting jobs. They felt caught in a catch-22 situation where potential employers were only willing to consider candidates with extensive and highly specific experience in the same sector.
One respondent in Egypt summed up how they saw the problem: “They want someone who is going to work for them to be fully experienced — they are not willing to give us either the time or the chance to learn the job requirements while working.”
Is this an unrealistic and shortsighted view from employers? The youth in our focus groups certainly thought so. For companies moving into developing markets, it’s surely not the way to develop a robust workforce. This outlook facilitates a situation that is unsustainable for employers and potential employees.
Corruption only makes the situation worse. Those without useful “connections” often feel shut out – and start to look for ways to escape, such as emigration, marrying wealthy foreigners or through the black economy. Far-reaching and fundamental structural changes to state and society are needed to address this problem. Companies wanting to play a constructive role in economic development ought to keep in mind this vicious cycle and avoid perpetuating it.
Another opportunity for the private sector to play a role where the state is failing is to establish strong partnerships between employers and schools. With apprenticeship programs, partnerships with educational establishments, scholarships and work experience programs, a skills bridge can be created between education and work. It’s likely that such efforts by companies will be welcomed: Education is the area where there is the greatest expectation for companies to play a role in the community.
What many youth we spoke to wanted more than anything was a sense of control and agency over their own lives. Many have big dreams, but felt that their situation was so precarious that these had to take a back seat to daily survival concerns.
Companies have an integral role to play in removing the barriers to obtaining work for these youth through education and other forms of community investment. By doing so, they will not only help to develop their own future workforce – but also assist in bridging the skills gap.
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