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Driving the skills agenda: Preparing students for the future – An Economist Intelligence Unit report, sponsored by Google (2015)

So, what’s driving the skills agenda you ask?

Mostly what you would expect: the needs of businesses, technology. and ceaseless change. (and not climate change, racism, sexism, inequality, or the need for investment in public spaces and civic engagement)

Driving the Skills Agenda is notable for it’s international scope, which actually helps to highlight how vacuous the skills agenda can be outside of the privileged assumption that we (or our kids) will wind up working for google. In low- and lower-middle-income countries,  ‘skills’ really means compliance and customer service:

“In Latin America, socio- emotional skills are a big part of the gap between what employers need and what young people have. For example, tourism companies need people who will smile and be polite to guests, and often graduates just don’t possess those public- facing techniques.” (Emiliana Vegas, chief of the Education Division, Inter-American Development Bank., p. 18)

And the emphasis on entrepreneurial skills harshly condemns youth in the ‘real’ world outside of school to a life of precarity:

As Brian Schreuder, deputy director-general of Curriculum and Assessment Management at the Western Cape Education Department points out, however, entrepreneurship can be crucial to those living a more hand-to-mouth existence. “In South Africa we have 25% youth unemployment. Young people need streetwise skills, entrepreneurial skills, the ability to move in and out of work.” (p. 10)

Rather than assemble a list of known problems that we will have to deal with, the ‘skills’ agenda trades on the idea that “we have no way of knowing what challenges tomorrow’s graduates will face” and thus it argues we focus on “sufficiently transferable skills to be able to respond to whatever the future holds.” (p. 1) Yong Zhao tells us that “our children will create the future” (p. 1), which optimistically could be a move to recognize the agency of youth, but which certainly ignores the ongoing responsibility of adults for the very real and pressing problems that we (and past generations) have created.

So, how does the ‘skills’ agenda explain high levels of youth unemployment?

Internationally, employers appear to be struggling to find young people with the skills they need. Over half (51%) of executives surveyed say a skills gap is hampering their organisation’s performance, and only 34% claim to be satisfied with the level of attainment of young people entering the company. (p. 17)

Ultimately, in the eyes of executives, youths are disposable – a ‘gap’ in their potential performance. I will address this topic at length sometime. But for now consider the sheer power asymmetry in this move: no one surveys teachers for recommendations on how businesses can better adjust themselves to suit today’s youths. And where’s the optimism that Zhao expressed for the kids who are going to create the future?




I footnotes