|4.4 By 2030, substantially increase the number of youth and adults who have relevant skills, including technical and vocational skills, for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship
Global monitoring of skills for decent work is likely to prove elusive because of the loose definitions of the target. However, by focussing on digital skills, we could help promote this agenda as long as these measures are culturally unbiased, are sensitive to changes in technology, and include adults.
Target 4.4 draws attention to decent work, which is enshrined within Articles 6 and 7 of the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Decent work respects fundamental human rights as well as worker rights in terms of work safety, remuneration and the physical and mental integrity of the worker. The ILO has further developed the concept.
It is less clear what skills are needed for decent work, however. Simply put, skills needed for work are specific to the job opportunities, which differ enormously across countries. Other than the foundational cognitive skills of literacy and numeracy, it is difficult to envisage any other skills for work that are amenable to global monitoring by satisfying three criteria: relevant in various labour market contexts, measurable at low cost; and acquirable through education.
What skills are particularly relevant for work?
Some of the more valued skills for work that could be highlighted for this target are meanwhile not easy to define or assess. Creativity, for instance, involves producing novel and useful content through divergent thinking, exploring various possible solutions. It involves motivation, perseverance, focus, flexibility, independence and the ability to overcome problems. However, the very process of assessing these skills may be incompatible with the type of divergent thinking required.
Critical thinking is another valued skill. One commonly accepted definition of this skill includes six cognitive dimensions: the abilities to interpret, analyse, evaluate, infer, explain and self-regulate. These six abilities are easier to measure, but important non-cognitive elements of critical thinking, such as the ability to understand others’ opinions, are not.
Collaboration is another skill that is valued for work. This skill requires coordination, communication, conflict resolution, decision-making and negotiation. The 2015 PISA test by the OECD, which assessed collaborative problem solving, defines a student with a low level of this skill as someone who ‘pursues random or irrelevant actions, operates individually, and makes little contribution to resolve potential obstacles’. However, assessing these skills is still in exploratory stages. It requires being able to assess group weaknesses when teamwork breaks down, something which is not always obvious.
A focus on monitoring digital skills can help move the agenda forward – but care is needed
Faced with this monitoring challenge, the Inter-agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDGs) proposed that information and communications technology (ICT) skills collected by households should form the global indicator using the definition of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). However, as this indicator is based on self-reported competencies related to computer use, it is too narrow in scope.
Instead, an emphasis on digital literacy skills, which is one of the thematic indicators, would have been preferable. It has three concrete advantages: it is broader than ICT skills; it is based on direct measurement of an actual skill, which should be a priority for this agenda; and it would help focus on a skill likely to become very relevant as a marker of disadvantage in the world of work for most people in the next 15 years.
Where there is data on this already, for instance, such as from the 2013 International Computer and Information Literacy Study (ICILS), we can see that 85% of grade 8 students in the Czech Republic demonstrated a functional working knowledge of computers, compared with just 13% in Thailand and 9% in Turkey.
There are caveats to this indicator too, you may not be surprised to hear. Current school-based tools are prone to cultural bias both in terms of the questions asked and the approaches. Assessments of digital literacy skills need to be further developed to be suitable for monitoring in low and middle income countries. [Tweet]
Any global tool will need to address rapid technological change over time – and will also need to be designed to include adults.
Meanwhile, even if many of the skills we know are good for decent work but not suitable for large scale monitoring, this should not mean that education systems should not help learners acquire them. As with several of the targets, indicators and data may take a while to firm up, but this does not mean progress towards our SDG4 ambitions should be held up.
This is the seventh in a series of ten blogs on monitoring SDG4, which we hope will serve as a reminder of some of the challenges remaining, and as a call to join hands to address them. Join us over the next two weeks by direct tweeting some of our key recommendations from this blog series to members of the two groups finalising education indicators on our behalf.
More published blogs in this series: