Life skills: The missing link between education and employment
India’s problem is one of unemployability and not unemployment, which is why skilling is crucial. Our data-backed projects have shown that scaling life skills for mainstream implementation requires a four-pronged approach.
Calling for deep sector reform and a systemic overhaul, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 emerged as a landmark moment for the Indian education sector. Informed by the view that education must go beyond academic outcomes to focus on the holistic development of our future generations, the policy recommended incorporating life skills as part of the curriculum. Coincidentally, this came at a time when the world was in the grips of Covid-19 — a period marked by health crises upending and exacerbating learning loss across the board.
The closure of all schools and educational institutions during the pandemic affected 275 million girls and boys aged between 3 and 18 years and worsened their access to education. The pandemic also led to an increase in India’s youth unemployment rate, making their already insecure position in the job market even more precarious. These factors have necessitated focused attention on building social, emotional and employability skills that can empower a generation to take on the challenges and opportunities of the dynamic 21st century.
It is a well-known fact that India’s problem is one of unemployability and not unemployment. There are 650 million Indians under the age of 25, the largest youth population in the world, which presents us with a unique situation: Almost 22% of the incremental global workforce over the next three decades will come from India. With the right interventions, this demographic dividend can easily be converted into a sustainable opportunity.
Life skills, which add capabilities to aid young people in transitioning to an evolving world of work, have only recently been identified as important for the holistic development of young students. The findings of a 2019 UNICEF Report, which states that more than half the youth of South Asia will have neither the education nor the skills needed to be employable in 2030, highlight the dire reality of our future.
The clarion call issued by NEP 2020 ignited several debates, interventions, and innovations on the ground, such as the Young Warrior NXT Project. Through this project, YuWaah UNICEF, the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation and Udhyam Learning Foundation came together to initiate 15 pilot programmes that could equip five lakh adolescents with the relevant skills to make them future-ready.
Take the case of Komal Singh, a girl from Uttar Pradesh who was seeking professional opportunity. Amid financial uncertainty and the stressors of the pandemic, she experienced a major dip in her confidence over time. In situations like these, young individuals like Komal lose a sense of hope and resilience, which in turn, affects their ability to take on challenges. Through life skills training as part of the Young Warrior NXT Project, she was able to regain confidence, improve her communication skills, and find new ways to solve problems with the help of her family and peers. In Komal’s words, she was always in conflict with her friends and at home with her father, but because of her ability to practice listening skills, and clear communication her relationship with her father has improved. Komal has also been able to assist her friends in practising life skills on a day-to-day basis.
Effectively scaling up the delivery of such innovative programmes, to empower our youth to thrive and equip them with the right skill sets, is the next logical step. Central to this is a systematic approach that can ultimately help integrate life skills training with the mainstream education curriculum and improve the preparedness of the next generation.
Our data-backed projects under Young Warrior NXT have shown that scaling life skills for mainstream implementation requires a four-pronged approach.
One, creating a common vocabulary. Without an agreed-upon vocabulary and assessment framework, it is not possible to effectively scale up life skills delivery in India. The most meaningful way to enable this is to create a common vocabulary at the national level. If the 2005 National Curriculum Framework (NCF) helped create a baseline for academic competencies, the new frameworks envisioned by NEP 2020 are expected to do the same for life skills education. The groundwork for this has already begun. The Life Skills Collaborative, a consortium of over 30 organisations with multi-sector expertise, working in tandem with state governments and educational institutions, has spent the last 18 months coming up with a glossary of key life skills terms and a framework for life skills training.
Two, creating assessment tools. Along with a common vocabulary to help streamline life skills training, scaling up demands assessment tools that can ensure measurable outcomes. A robust assessment tool would enable us to assess the impact of each framework of life skills training and organise our efforts toward implementing the most effective framework. For instance, the “Future Readiness” assessment tool deployed across the 15 different pilots under Young Warrior NXT was designed to provide comparable evaluations and learning across three key metrics – enrolment, engagement and learner feedback – that would inform sustainability and future scalability. This becomes particularly important when dealing with large systemic shifts in education departments that span millions of students.
Three, curating content on life skills. Making age-appropriate, relevant and contextual learning content available to all is the cornerstone to building life skills for the 21st century. Multiple e-learning solutions that aggregate high-quality learning content on the most basic of academic subjects have indeed revolutionised education. A similar solution to curate content on life skills could greatly benefit stakeholders invested in transacting life skills at scale. This would not only enable young people to take charge of their own learning, but also offer opportunities for collaboration with learning experts in the space and building on existing efforts in the ecosystem.
Four, using our existing systems. Finally, if we have to deliver life skills at scale, we must leverage our existing school systems and vocational training infrastructure. There are over 10 million teachers and over 1.5 million schools in India – a significant asset base and delivery channel that can be tapped into. However, it is important to note that our teachers are already overburdened and the pressure of post-Covid catch-up is putting more stress on the system. Hence, it is essential that we adequately aid, support and guide the teachers with pedagogical frameworks, lesson plans and assessment tools to enable the delivery of life skills training within the mainstream curriculum.
The life skills pilots undertaken by Young Warrior NXT have been a vital starting point. However, to reap measurable impact and deliver at scale, we need to continue testing innovative models and investing in local and state-level capacity-building. Life skills must be recognised as an integral part of realising the full potential of India’s youth, and it is our responsibility to empower them with the most comprehensive toolkits to fulfil their aspirations and inspire future generations.
Geeta Goel is managing director, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation, India. Dhuwarakha Sriram is chief of Gen U India, YuWaah, Youth Development and Partnerships at UNICEF
The views expressed are personal