On World Youth Skills Day on 15 July, a series of high-profile global events will highlight the focus on the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) needed by young people to tackle the transition between youth and adulthood and move towards a life of independence.
The day was established in 2014 by the United Nations General Assembly to celebrate the strategic importance of equipping young people with skills for work. But in 2022, the priorities look very different from those of a pre-pandemic world.
“World Youth Skills Day 2022 takes place amid concerted efforts towards socio-economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that are interconnected with challenges such as climate change, conflict, persisting poverty, rising inequality, rapid technological change, demographic transition, and others,” says UNESCO.
A life less lived
And, while education and training specifically related to future employment are without doubt more necessary than ever, the last two years have removed a whole layer of experience from young people that can’t be taught in a classroom or learned at a conference.
We’ve adapted to the practicalities of working remotely in learning and in business. As adults, many of us embraced the novelty of remote working: no more commuting, a reduced or eliminated need for childcare, the flexibility to fit in working hours around other commitments, or even just to spend an extra hour in bed.
But for students, the social aspect of learning is a crucial aspect of development into adulthood: leaving home to live with people their own age for the first time and experiencing the diversity of different values, cultures, and life experiences; learning how to budget; taking on a part-time job and discovering the harsh reality of juggling shifts with timetables and deadlines. And, of course, the fun of that first taste of freedom and socializing as an independent adult for the first time.
According to a March 2022 research paper from Esade, the learning losses experienced by students who learn remotely correlate with a greater impact on social welfare. In a study of Basque schools, Lucas Gortazar and Andreu Arenas found that the students whose education suffered as a result of school closures also reported significantly worse levels of socio-emotional wellbeing due to the pandemic.
For those who choose the vocational route, life hasn’t fared much better. Government wage-replacement furlough schemes may have provided a financial lifeline, and online learning continued to deliver an element of training. But the responsibility of traveling to work, liaising with colleagues, the benefit of the wisdom of years of knowledge of colleagues, and experiencing the day-to-day realities of work life are all essential elements of carving out a career.
And, as associate professor Dirk Foremny noted in December 2020, while furloughs provide a solution for those at the risk of becoming unemployed, people unemployed before the pandemic slipped through the net.
While youth unemployment in the European Union is, on average, at its lowest level for decades, countries heavily reliant on a beleaguered tourism industry such as Greece, Spain, and Italy continue to see worryingly high rates of youth unemployment. This leaves millions of young people with no official financial support, education, or vocational training. “Additional funds should be provided to ensure proper help for those in need of mental health support,” says Foremny.
The cost to mental health
Despite the losses experienced by young people, global headlines have frequently blamed them for the spread of the virus. Mixed messaging from governments – lifting stay-at-home orders, then swiftly replacing them when people rushed to spend time with friends and the virus once again spiked – resulted in negative news stories blaming young people simply for embracing state-sanctioned socializing.
It's little wonder, then, that the prevalence of mental health issues among older adolescents has doubled during the pandemic. A meta-analysis of 29 global studies including 80,879 young people revealed significant levels of clinically elevated child and adolescent anxiety and depression symptoms during COVID-19 and found them to be higher in older adolescents and girls.
There is some good news: Eva Jané-Llopis, director of Health SDGs and Social Innovation, at Esade, says mental health issues have been brought out into the open as a result of the pandemic.
“A recent survey indicates that behavioral health is among the top workforce health concerns with nine out of 10 employers surveyed noting that COVID-19 is affecting their workforce behavioral health and/or productivity,” she says. “And 60 percent state they are starting or will continue and expand the behavioral health services as part of their COVID-19 pandemic-related benefits.”
It falls to global governments to ensure that young adults receive the opportunities they need to develop their careers. World Youth Skills Day is a wonderful opportunity to embrace the UN’s original objectives to equip young people with skills for employment, decent work, and entrepreneurship.
But executives and leaders also have a part to play. Managers need to be aware that the young people coming into the workplace for the first time after two years of isolation won’t have the same level of experience as those lucky enough to develop in a post-pandemic world. Chastising people for being unaware of workplace etiquette when they have no experience of it is unfair and simply adds to the burden young people have borne over the last two years.
Kindness, compassion, patience, and humility are all qualities in short supply. On World Youth Skills Day, managers should embrace the opportunity to help develop the soft skills young people have missed out on through no fault of their own.
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