What works in Cross-Sectoral Skills for Youth?

Cross-sectoral skills, often referred to as “soft skills”, are a broad set of skills, behaviors, and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, work collaboratively with others, perform well, and achieve their goals. Growing research shows that cross-sectoral skills are equally important to youths’ long-term development as cognitive, technical, and vocational skills. The resources below present some of the existing evidence on how cross-sectoral skills are perceived and valued by different stakeholders, the types of cross-sectoral skills that have the most impact in improving outcomes for youth across sectors, and promising practices in implementing and measuring skills-development interventions.

In this report, the authors seek to understand the attitudes and perceptions of key education stakeholders by reviewing the education space in Mexico, South Africa, Kenya, and the Philippines, each of which have recently extended mandated years of education and/or included a focus on 21st century skills in their offerings to students. Through interviews and focus groups, parents, community members, teachers, teacher trainers, and education administration and policy personnel answered two primary questions concerning skills most highly valued in their communities: 1) What are the skills you associate with a successful person? and 2) What are the skills that are important for children and students to develop?
Based on the research, three broad patterns are noticeable: 1) there are differences between the stakeholder groups that work closely with the child (i.e., parents, teachers) and the groups that are more distant from the child (i.e., teacher trainers, non-government, and government actors); 2) certain skills and traits are mentioned by all countries; and 3) there are clear differences between countries in the factors and skills that are highly valued and emphasized. In terms of characterizing the factors for success, the skills most frequently mentioned were communication, social and interpersonal skills, and critical and analytical thinking. The skills that are highly valued for learners include a broad range of 21st century skills such as collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, social and interpersonal skills, technology and computer skills, and listening skills.

Educators and employers agree that there is a growing gap between the skills that companies expect from their entry-level employees and the skills that these young people possess. Despite the widely-held belief that more soft skills training is needed to help close this gap, the current economic crisis has negatively impacted workforce policies and decreased industry investment in training and workforce development. This report presents findings on the current soft skills training landscape within the service sector, and specifically includes: what basic soft skills competencies are required for a diverse group of entry-level employees with varying levels of education and experience; where gaps in those skills exist; what the soft skills marketplace is offering; and where opportunities for further training exist. The authors explore the potential of e-learning training solutions to increase access to high quality and cost-effective soft-skills training.

This report aims to identify the core soft skills that would create positive outcomes across important areas of youth’s lives, including workforce success, violence prevention, and sexual and reproductive health (SRH). The hypothesis tested by this research is that there is a common set of soft skills that lead to positive outcomes across multiple domains. The study conducted an extensive review of soft skills literature as it relates to these three outcomes areas. Three critical soft skills were among the top five supported across each of the three domains and emerged as the most likely to increase the odds of youth success: positive self-concept; self-control; and higher-order thinking skills. Additionally, social skills and communication also emerged as skills with strong cross-sectoral support, and empathy and goal orientation emerged as particularly important skills specific to violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health, respectively.

Many young people around the world — especially the disadvantaged — are leaving school without the skills they need to thrive in society and find decent jobs. As well as thwarting young people’s hopes, these education failures are jeopardizing equitable economic growth and social cohesion, and preventing many countries from reaping the potential benefits of their growing youth populations. The 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report examines how skills development programs can be improved to boost young people’s opportunities for decent jobs and better lives.

Helping to build what are often referred to as "social-emotional" or "21st century skills" is an important contribution that many youth programs make and more could be making. Yet these efforts remain underrepresented in the program evaluation literature, in part because they cannot be measured using administrative records or other databases to which schools and programs might have access. Practitioners and funders regularly seek advice about how to measure these skills. This guide summarizes information about tools that programs can use to measure youth progress in these areas. The guide builds on and complements several related resources available.

This paper reviews the recent literature on measuring and fostering cognitive and non-cognitive skills. IQ tests and achievement tests do not adequately capture non-cognitive skills, personality traits, goals, character, motivations, and preferences that are valued in the labor market, in school, and in many other domains. For many outcomes, their predictive power rivals or exceeds that of cognitive skills. A key finding from the paper is that the early years are important in shaping all skills and in laying the foundations for successful investment and intervention in the later years. This paper reviews a variety of interventions targeted to different stages of the life cycle. Four conclusions emerge:
1.     The evidence base is larger on the long-term effectiveness of interventions that start in the early childhood and elementary school compared to their adolescent counter-parts.
2.     When evaluating skills enhancement programs, it is vital to consider outcomes other than IQ or achievement test scores.
3.     The available evidence suggests that the most successful adolescent remediation programs are not as effective as the most successful early childhood and elementary school programs.
4.     The available evidence suggests that the most promising adolescent interventions are those that target non-cognitive skills as well as programs that offer mentoring, guidance, and information.

A central constraining issue in the field of youth workforce development is the lack of consensus about how to measure soft and life skills, or “work readiness.” This report scans and reviews tools designed to measure developmental assets, workforce readiness skills, and life skills – all areas identified as key stepping stones for young people to achieve positive life outcomes, particularly gainful employment. A list of close to 50 measurement tools was reviewed and reduced down to 15 based on 1) relevance to the main topic areas of interest to USAID (e.g. positive youth development, workforce readiness, conflict mitigation); 2) expected ease of implementation; 3) previous history of use in developing countries; 4) whether the tool had been used for youth assessments or evaluations; and 5) whether the tool was recommended specifically by an implementer or researcher. In addition to presenting a list of the 50 tools reviewed, the report includes a description of the 5 top tools, and a discussion on measurement challenges for the field and how USAID might address them.