Matching young people with meaningful jobs and livelihood opportunities stands as one of the great challenges of the next two decades. An estimated 1 billion people alive today are between the ages of 15 and 24, and many of them live in countries where the formal economic sector is weak or developing. They are often unable to find work that allows them to provide for themselves or their family.
Unemployed, underskilled workers pose significant challenges to the economic and social stability of a country. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is often seen as an answer to the global youth unemployment crisis, but years of neglect have resulted in systems that simply do not prepare young people for the opportunities that are available or in demand.
In Rwanda and Macedonia, though, EDC has helped make vocational training institutions more relevant for the young people they are supposed to serve. The secret? Teach work-readiness skills alongside technical ones, and then pursue partnerships with both the public and private sector to open up employment opportunities for youth. It’s a TVET model that works—and that simultaneously prepares young people for work and life.
Rwanda: Working and ready
At the core of EDC’s approach is its signature workforce development curriculum Work Ready Now! It addresses a problem pervasive among many young people: even when they gain the technical skills necessary to secure jobs, they often lack the interpersonal skills and work ethic to be an effective employee.
Work Ready Now! stresses employability skills in areas such as communications, finance, and workplace safety. The curriculum consists of eight modules totaling up to 100 hours of instruction time. The materials take a hands-on approach, using theory, role-play, interviews, self- and peer reflection, team challenges, and other learning and practice activities.
Working with trainers and external assessors, youth assess their own mastery of the skills they have learned. Students are also required to practice their work readiness skills through paid or unpaid work opportunities that are supported by private sector partners. Mentors help the employers and young people evaluate the work experience and develop longer-term career plans, including exploring avenues to self-employment or entrepreneurship.
In Rwanda, Work Ready Now! is used as part of the USAID-funded Akazi Kanoze program. Cornelia Janke is EDC’s program director for Akazi Kanoze. “In Rwanda, there was a recognition that work readiness skills were a critical missing ingredient among the young workforce,” she says. “We’ve tried to put these skills forward as part of a three-legged stool, alongside updated technical skills and actual work experience.”
In 2011, 14 technical training centers around Rwanda implemented the Work Ready Now! curriculum. As of June 2014, an estimated 15,000 young people from across 23 TVET institutions have accessed the training. And thanks to a new four-year partnership with the MasterCard corporation, EDC and the Rwandan government will extend work readiness instruction and school-to-work transition programming into the standard curriculum for both general high schools and TVET institutions at the secondary level.
EDC’s approach to TVET received an overwhelmingly positive response from Rwandan employers. A 2012 survey of 43 companies that hired at least two Akazi Kanoze graduates as employees or interns showed that 97 percent of graduates met or exceeded employers’ expectations regarding their work readiness skills as well as their ability to balance balancing personal and work life.
“It’s an exciting time,” says Janke. “EDC’s work on Akazi Kanoze has helped to inform thinking about youth livelihood development models in Rwanda. We are at a point now of crafting a sustainable approach with the buy-in of government partners. It’s a big tent in which government, nongovernmental organizations, and the private sector all come together.”
Macedonia: Supplying in-demand talent
Three thousand miles north, in Macedonia, a similar success story is playing out. Work Ready Now! is being implemented by EDC’s Youth Employability Skills (YES) Network in 50 TVET schools around the country, helping Macedonia’s formerly skills-heavy TVET system transition into something more flexible, holistic, and relevant.
EDC’s Erik Butler, who oversees the YES Network, emphasizes that effective TVET programming mimics the real economy: it’s all about supply and demand.
“It’s imperative that any workforce development program understand what the technical and personal requirements of the labor market are, so that the skills you are teaching young people will be relevant in the local economy,” says Butler. “Workforce development doesn’t work if supply and demand do not match.”
The YES Network’s impact is significant in Macedonia, where four out of every five secondary school students attend a vocational education and training school. But the links between these schools and the formal economy are weak: graduates of the country’s technical programs often lack practical experience and employability skills, even though they have the job skills.
The YES Network began addressing these gaps in 2011 when it started as a small workforce-readiness initiative in three municipalities in Macedonia. As TVET schools in these areas adopted the Work Ready Now! curriculum, the YES Network staff conducted local labor market assessments to determine what skills were required by employers.
“Our position at the intersection of the central government and the municipalities in a very decentralized system meant that we could tailor our programming to specific, regional needs,” says Butler. “The national government regards us as their technical resource, and the municipalities are sure we are their advocates.”
The result was a better alignment between TVET programming and actual workforce opportunities than before. Not only were students learning the trade and employment skills needed to succeed, but the YES Network partnerships with local industries were helping young people find places to work.
Based on its initial success, the YES Network was expanded and is now a central component in Macedonia’s national TVET program. It also continued to make partnerships with the local business community. Fifteen schools have established career centers to connect young people to opportunities in local businesses and offer career counseling services. Plans are also underway to develop an externship program for Macedonian TVET teachers so they can better understand the economic and labor market that their students will join.
“In order to make real, lasting change, you need buy-in,” says Butler. “And you get buy-in by showing policymakers and educators that their opinions will actually affect the program design. We’ve done that from the beginning in Macedonia—and the result is that young people have far more opportunities today than they did four years ago.”