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15 July 2020

Embracing Disruption: Youth, skills and resilience

Today, Wednesday 15 July, is World Youth Skills Day – the annual UN celebration of youth, and the role that skills can play in transforming their individual opportunities and prospects.

In this year of a global pandemic, the UN and its partners like WorldSkills are using the day to highlight the centrality of skilled professionals and workers in keeping the world moving during the lockdowns so many of us have experienced or continue to experience.

WorldSkills organizes the world championships of skills and trades, held every two years in different locations. Our Competitors, or Champions as we call them, are young people who come from every continent to compete. The event serves as an unrivalled benchmark for skills excellence globally.

The global pandemic has had a catastrophic impact on the economic prospects of young people. The ILO estimates that “working-hour losses for the second quarter of 2020 relative to the last quarter of 2019 will reach 14.0 per cent worldwide (equivalent to 400 million full-time jobs)”.

The global pandemic has already triggered the deepest global recession for decades, and with COVID-19 continuing its spread around the world the potential for further economic shocks is high.

In recent weeks we have been hearing individual stories of resilience through skills directly from some of our Champions. Take for example 20-year old Shae White who had been working as a chef in a Barbados hotel which was closed by the outbreak, as was the college she was still attending. “I’m trying to get back into the motions of being essentially normal, from a complete standstill, and getting back into the groove”, said Shae who competed for Barbados at WorldSkills Kazan 2019.

Amelia Addis, a Champion from New Zealand, had her two businesses directly impacted by COVID-19. Her company, which provides floral arrangements for weddings and events had all upcoming booked clients postpone their celebrations, while the automobile service business she runs with her partner was shut for six weeks by lockdown. She says the challenge is, “Managing our own fears and uncertainties around what our businesses would look like after this but also the responsibility to our staff and customers”.

A third Champion, Barthélemy Deutsch, temporarily exchanged life as a maître in a high-end Parisian hotel to volunteer in a Brussels hospital. He has been helping digitally connect patients, often desperately ill with COVID-19, to their loved ones. “Now I had to deal with sadness, with sickness”, he said. “You have to deal with death and even mental illness. That was something I was not ready for, so a big step into something unknown for me”.While these responses are anecdotal, they are heartening demonstrations of the resilience young, skilled professionals are demonstrating at the individual level to respond to this crisis by deploying and adapting their skills. This adaptability is also a challenge for skills training providers, assessment bodies and for WorldSkills as the largest organiser of skill competitions.

The global pandemic has threatened the continuity of skills training provision. In a recent survey of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) providers by the ILO, UNESCO and the World Bank Group, around 90% of respondents reported the complete closure of TVET centres in their countries. The limitations of training online were highlighted by many respondents, especially in the Global South, who experience digital access issues.

Despite this, online training is at the forefront. And VET providers broadly have confidence in its effectiveness. In a recent snap poll at one of our webinars, 59% of those surveyed said that they thought that skill competitions, training and assessments could be effective online.

But VET, by its very nature of focusing on practical skills and work-readiness, makes remote learning challenging. Practical skills are acquired by learning-by-doing, in workshops and through hands-on experience. As one of our woodworking experts recently explained, “The master craftsman selects and works with wood where the feel and smell are important sensory elements. You cannot learn that online!”

While World Youth Skills Day provides a special focus on youth and skills, we cannot afford to be complacent.

So how do we:

  • ensure that investments into VET programmes are maintained?
  • continue or add to the development of foundational skills like problem-solving, empathy and resilience, which have become increasingly valued for employability?
  • embrace the disruptive nature of the pandemic and turn “lemons into lemonade”?
  • support schools and colleges with online careers toolkits to help teachers and parents better advise young people about the benefits of choosing high-quality, skilled career routes?
  • ensure new traineeships and work placements are provided for much-needed employability skills, and to motivate more young people to pursue rewarding careers in sectors which are vital to the economic recovery?

Ultimately, how do we ensure youth and skills stay at the forefront of the economic recovery?

- By David Hoey, CEO of WorldSkills International

This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. It aims to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge. Opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

To keep updated on all of the OECD's work supporting the fight against COVID-19, visit their Digital Content Hub.