The Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement (ISESE) project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, seeks to identify the skills required for work in the 21st-century economies of Africa and Asia, and to explore innovative models of delivering those skills to youth of secondary school age. The Results for Development Institute (R4D) worked with regional partners in both regions to uncover new findings, and also scanned existing research and work in this area. This synthesis paper summarizes the background studies on skills for employability that were produced as part of this research, and is complementary to a parallel synthesis paper exploring innovative models for skills enhancement at the secondary level.
Secondary education is now the level of education from which most people enter the labor force (the exception is Africa, where secondary school enrollment rates are growing rapidly but still remain at less than 40 percent). Yet secondary education remains largely conceptualized as an interim step for the elite en route to higher education. Three aspects of secondary education skills are examined: the link between skills and individual livelihoods and economic growth; employer expectations regarding skills; and the specification of skills in the curriculum. Broadly speaking, three different types of skill are important: cognitive, non-cognitive (behavioral and attitudinal), and technical. The economic research evidence is increasing that cognitive skills are directly related to individual earnings and broader economic growth; there is not as yet much evidence about non-cognitive skills; and technical skills only seem to make a difference for initial employment but not thereafter, an important finding as technical education is so much more expensive per student than general academic secondary education. Employers are as concerned about non-cognitive skills as they are about cognitive and technical ones, and while there are some regional and sectoral differences, those are not as important as this broader finding. Non-cognitive skills are much more important for the informal sector than previously realized. Curricula rarely specify non-cognitive skills; where they are included, it is not in a way that is helpful to teachers in understanding what employers are looking for.