As the economic crisis continues to squeeze budgets worldwide, the severe lack of youth skills is more damaging than ever. The world’s youth population has never been larger, but one in eight young people is unemployed and over a quarter of them are trapped in jobs that keep them on or below the poverty line.
What should we do to help these young people? South Korea’s experience over the past 40 years offers many lessons, as the 2012 Education for All Global Monitoring Report, “Putting Education to Work,” points out.
The report, which is the major global survey of progress toward international education goals, focuses this year on the urgent need to invest in skills for youth ― and holds up Korea as an example of what can be achieved. In developing countries, 200 million people aged 15 to 24 have not even completed primary school and need alternative pathways to acquire basic skills for employment and prosperity. Those who face discrimination and inherited disadvantages, such as young women, the poor, those in rural communities and ethnic minorities, are the worst affected.
So what lessons can Korea’s experience offer? The report answers this question by looking at the stark contrast between Korea’s progress and that of Ghana.
In the early 1970s, Ghana was at a similar starting point to the Republic of Korea, but it has lagged far behind since then. The Republic of Korea began to expand its secondary education system rapidly in the 1970s, but in Ghana secondary education stagnated for another 30 years.
Ghana’s lack of progress in education was partly the result of economic problems. But it was also because of insufficient investment in education or linking of economic planning with skills development policies. In the early 1980s, Ghana’s spending on education was less than 2 percent of GDP per capita, compared with around 4 percent in the Republic of Korea at the time.
Even though Ghana embarked on education reforms from 1987, the quality of education and its relevance to the labor market have remained poor. Technical and vocational education has not been well enough linked with the economy. And although access to education has expanded, by 2008 almost one-third of those aged 15 to 19 were still not making it through lower secondary school, with some not even completing primary school.
Since the 1990s, Ghana’s economy has started to grow faster. By 2010, it had achieved a growth rate of 7.7 percent. Most employment is now in small enterprises that pay low wages. But unlike in Korea, these companies have only recently begun to benefit from government support to foster skills development.
There are many reasons why Ghana’s economic success has not matched that of Korea ― and other East Asian “miracle” economies ― since the 1960s. But the short-sightedness of economic reforms that failed to invest in skills for the future economy must take some share of the blame.
A key message from Korea’s experience is that states must play a key role in matching skills supply to demand. Given how extensively and rapidly skills needed to be transformed as East Asian economies moved to higher value-added goods and services, it is doubtful that market forces alone could have done the job.
Another conclusion is that the global scale of the skills challenge is great ― but so is the wealth of global knowledge that can be mobilized to meet it.
Korea’s success means that it is now among the top 15 aid donors offering their knowledge about skills development to poorer countries that are in dire need of reducing their skills deficit ― and in doing so, helping them to tap into the enormous potential that their rapidly growing youth population represents.
The dramatic speed of Korea’s success was highlighted on Oct. 9 when the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris. Mr. Ban has just launched a global initiative, Education First, aimed at promoting the transformational power of education. He presented UNESCO with a copy of a natural science textbook published by the agency that he had used as a child in post-war Korea in 1956.
Across the developing world, there are millions of children and young people who need the kind of support that Korea’s government gave its own people in the difficult decades after the Second World War. Let’s encourage governments in those countries to do the same for their people ― and let’s offer them everything we know about how to turn skills into jobs, growth and prosperity.
By Pauline Rose
Pauline Rose is the director of the Global Monitoring Report published by UNESCO. ― Ed.