This week, we traveled to Kosovo, Albania, and Bosnia & Herzegovina, three countries in the Western Balkans. We’ve interacted with and heard from students, teachers, policymakers, donors, and development practitioners to better understand how various countries are preparing for the changing nature of work.
Work patterns are changing. As a result of digitization and hyperconnectivity, work is becoming more flexible, decentralized, and knowledge based. For this reason, action-based education is more important than ever to give millions of young people the skills they need to enter the workforce. Two of the 17 targets for the education Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) mentioned technical and vocational education.
The reality is that young people in education are confronted with a choice as to whether they want to continue with higher education or take up vocational education and training (VET). We’re sure most people have passed through this challenge mainly in countries where choices are available.
Yet perceptions play a role in decision-making, not only by young people but also by their parents. According to studies conducted in numerous countries, VET doesn't have the same favorable public perception as university education. VET appears to rate poorly when compared to academic education obtained through university as a feasible route into employment—a situation known as the "deficit of reputation."
Despite the unfavorable perceptions, our conversations with those intimately involved in education and employment in the Western Balkans tend to show a positive change.
Possible influencing factors
We wanted to delve deeper into the reasons why young people are increasingly choosing VET as a viable career path. Three elements appear to be influencing how young people perceive VET.
Migration is the first. Young people who plan to immigrate to other countries—primarily Western Europe—have come to understand the importance of developing practical skills to meet local labor market shortages in the host countries and enhance their standard of living. VET is closely matched with labor market demands in host countries, including the health, construction, and food sectors, and appears to ease the transfers into the workforce.
This indicates a rising trend of immigrants who are adequately prepared before leaving for another country. Such a pattern is in line with data showing that migrants who left their home countries with the goal of learning a new skill in their “new country” struggled more than those who arrived equipped. The confidence to pursue VET courses, the presence of pertinent knowledge and skills, and accessibility to social networks offering support and assistance are barriers in the host countries.
The second factor is the growing cooperation between employers in the corporate sector and educational institutions. This has already been mentioned as one of the main issues with education systems that fall short of the needs of the labor market. Private sector businesses appear to be becoming more active in VET centers, expressing interest, and requesting particular skill sets.
Despite its challenges, years of donor investment seemed to have a positive effect on encouraging closer cooperation, if not significantly, between the public and private sectors. Additionally, private sector businesses have demonstrated a greater willingness to engage VET centers proactively in search of a skilled workforce.
Thirdly, it appears that more young people are "independently" making decisions about what they want to study and what they want to do for a living. One of the key elements appears to be the advent of digital technology and easy access to information. Young people now have access to a greater range of digital platforms, online tools, and educational and training possibilities. Relatedly, the COVID-19 pandemic's economic effects and growing living expenses have compelled families and young people to look for alternate work opportunities. Many people appear to find short-term, hands-on training to be a useful alternative.
The pandemic has in some ways also highlighted the value of particular skills and professions. Examples include the need for skills in information and communication technology (ICT), industrial skills (which cover a wide range of products from cleaning and disinfection products to mask production), health care, as well as critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving, adaptability, and resilience. When we spoke to students in training facilities, many expressed interests in finding employment locally and indicated that they might not want to emigrate.
A rising tide may not lift all boats
Routine and specialized knowledge was given a lot of weight in the previous education systems of the Western Balkan countries. This won't work in the digital age, though. Being young is like being stuck between a rock and a hard place because of how quickly the world of work is changing. For people who are more marginalized and disadvantaged—those who live with disabilities, belong to underrepresented groups, reside in rural areas, or are internally displaced or refugees—this is more difficult. In addition, gender differences provide significant difficulties in the world of work.
Sometimes, the actual situation is more complicated, and not everything is as it seems. Over 100 million young adults are still living in extreme poverty, according to one survey. Still, the majority of those who are unemployed or underemployed are young people. The youth will be most impacted by economic insecurity and educational consequences for years to come.
The information presented above is anecdotal in nature, and more research is required to fully understand key constraints and enabling conditions. As part of the overall post-pandemic recovery, such analysis should concentrate on how the education system needs to undergo systemic changes, such as transformations in structures, business models, behaviors, and norms. It should also reimagine an inclusive education system that emphasizes the breadth of skills required to succeed in the digital age.
Under the changing nature of the future of work – often in complex, dynamic, and unpredictable manners – young people who succeed in finding employment are typically hired into low-skilled, low-productivity positions, often in the informal sector. For those who don’t find work, the impact of long-term unemployment can be devastating and have long-lasting consequences, putting social cohesion and families at threat.
Success in the labor market is determined by skill development. It’s a reliable indicator of young people finding steady, decent work. For a smooth transition from school to work, young people with improved skills who are seeking their first job are better prepared.
We believe it's crucial to define and understand skills as a part of a “knowledge system” that also consists of know-how, attitudes, and competencies. Skills development includes non-formal and informal training methods in addition to traditional VET. To address the various obstacles of life, young people need a variety of skills, including transferrable, technical, and foundational skills.
While it's wonderful to see young people's attitudes toward skill development changing, key enablers in the education system, including the capacity of trainers, coordination, information, financing, and standards, aren't operating at their potential. For instance, we conducted a brief poll among the young people who were training as masons, cooks, tailors, and electrical technicians in one of the training centers. The only way any of them were aware of the training centers was by word of mouth. It appears that training centers lack the capacity or incentive to appeal to and connect with young people.
We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future….