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As the nature of work changes, some workers are caught in the crosshairs of ongoing disruptions in the skills required. As economies rejig to provide the human capital of the next generation, the current working-age population becomes anxious about its job prospects.

One step toward lessening this anxiety is adult learning aimed at supplying workers who are not in school or in jobs with new or updated skills. However, this approach has shown more promise in theory than in practice. Bad design too often gets in the way. Adult learning can be improved in three ways:

  • more systematic diagnoses of the specific constraints that adults are facing
  • pedagogies that are customized to the adult brain
  • and flexible delivery models that fit in well with adult lifestyles.

Preparing Adults for the Changing Labor Markets

Adult learning is an important channel for readjusting skills to fit in the future of work, but it would benefit from a serious design rethink. Adult learning programs come in many different forms. This article mainly focuses on three types that are particularly relevant to preparing adults for the changing labour markets:

  • programs on adult literacy
  • skills training for wage employment
  • and entrepreneurship programs.
Photo: KS

Billion Working-age Adults Have Low Reading Proficiency

Worldwide, more than 2.1 billion working-age adults (ages 15–64) have low reading proficiency. In Sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 61 per cent of workers are not proficient in reading; in Latin America and the Caribbean, this share is 44 per cent. In India, only 24 per cent of 18- to 37-year-olds who drop out of school before completing the primary level can read. Low-Quality education also may lead to poor literacy skills (figure). In Bolivia, Ghana, and Kenya more than 40 per cent of 19- to 20-year-olds with an upper secondary education score below the basic literacy level, compared with only 3 per cent in Vietnam. This is a problem. Given the future of work, functional literacy is a survival skill. The economic and social cost of adult illiteracy to developing countries is estimated at more than US$5 billion a year.

Even with basic literacy skills, many people leave school too early to thrive in work or life. Reasons may be economic or cultural constraints, the low quality of basic education, or both. In 2014 the dropout rate from a lower secondary general education was, on average, 27.5 per cent in low-income countries and 13.3 per cent and 4.8 per cent in middle- and high-income countries, respectively.30 It is difficult for early school leavers to find jobs or pursue further education later in life without formal certification and training in skills. Similar constraints are also faced by many adults who stayed in school but received a poor-quality basic education.

Out of School and Out of Work

Globally, some 260 million people ages 15–24 are out of school and out of work. A pool of unemployed adults is a political risk as well as an economic concern. At times, it leads to a wave of emigration, social unrest, or political upheaval. Insufficient economic opportunities for an increasingly educated population were a major catalyst of the 2010–11 Arab Spring. Changing demographics place additional pressures on the labour market. Many rich countries are trying to equip a smaller, older workforce with new skills for the changing nature of work, to sustain economic growth. Other countries with big youth cohorts are struggling with a low-skill labour force trapped in low-productivity jobs.

Adult learning programs update the skills and retool and improve the adaptability of older workers. India’s Saakshar Bharat initiative, launched in 2009, seeks to provide 70 million adults with literacy. In Ghana, adult literacy programs have yielded labour market returns of more than 66 per cent. The Mexican National Institute for Adult Education has developed flexible modules to deliver education programs equivalent to primary or secondary education. They are intended to give out-of-school individuals a second chance. Under the World Bank’s Nepal: Adolescent Girls Employment Initiative, vocational training for women has increased employment outside of agriculture by 174 per cent. Argentina’s Entra21 program is providing adult skills training and internships, resulting in 40 per cent higher earnings for its participants. Kenya’s Ninaweza program is offering skills training to young women living in informal settlements in Nairobi. The program has led to a 14 per cent increase in the likelihood of obtaining a job, higher earnings, and more self-confident participants.

Photo: KS

Entrepreneurship Programs Do not Create Employment

But many adult learning programs fail to generate a meaningful impact. Adult literacy programs often improve word recognition but fail to improve actual reading comprehension. In Niger, an adult education program increased reading speed, but not to the level required for reading comprehension (the minimum reading speed for reading comprehension is one word every 1.5 seconds). Entrepreneurship programs often improve business knowledge, but they do not create employment. In Peru, training for female entrepreneurs improved business, but it did not generate a significant increase in employment. Vocational training for the unemployed often improves short-run earnings but not always long-run employment. The Dominican Republic’s Juventud y Empleo (Youth and Employment) program improved noncognitive skills and job formality, but it did not increase employment. And Turkey’s vocational training had no significant impacts on overall employment, and the positive effects on employment quality faded in the long term.

Even among successful adult learning programs, the costs are high. In Liberia, even though young women with access to job skills training enjoy higher monthly earnings—US$11 more than the comparison group—the cost of the program is US$1,650 per person. Thus 12 years of stable effects must pass for the training program to recoup its costs. In Latin America, a long time is required for some programs to attain positive net present values if their benefits are sustained—for example, seven years for ProJoven (Program for Young People) in Peru and 12 years for Proyecto Joven (Young Project) in Argentina. Adult learning is frequently just one expensive component of a comprehensive package, making it difficult to understand a program’s cost-effectiveness. The Chilean Micro Entrepreneurship Support Program boosted self-employment by 15 percentage points in the short run, but it is not clear how much of this can be attributed to the 60-hour business training or the US$600 capital injection.

Adult Brains Learn Differently

The two main reasons for low effectiveness are a suboptimal design and an incorrect diagnosis. Adult brains learn differently—and that is not always factored into program design. Because the brain’s ability to learn lessons with age, adult learning programs face a built-in challenge: acquiring knowledge when the brain is less efficient at learning. Advances in neuroscience suggest how to tackle this factor. An adult brain’s ability to learn is significantly dependent on how much it is used. Adult learning programs have a better chance of success if lessons are integrated into everyday life. In Niger, students who received instruction via their mobile phones as part of an adult education program achieved reading and math scores that were significantly higher than those who did not.

Adults face significant stress, which compromises their mental capacity— and that, too, is not always factored into program design. For adults, emotions are constantly mediated by the demands of family, child care, and work. These demands compete with the cognitive capacity required for learning. In India, sugarcane farmers were found to have a markedly diminished cognitive capacity when they were poorer (during preharvest) than when they were richer (during postharvest). Creating emotional cues linked to learning content—such as goal-setting—can be an effective strategy to increase adult learning. But behavioural tools are rarely integrated into adult learning programs.

Adults face specific socioeconomic constraints—and, again, these are not always factored into the design of adult learning programs. Adult learners have high opportunity costs in terms of lost income and lost time with their children, but programs often have inflexible and intensive schedules. In Malawi, participation in training resulted in a decline in personal savings for women at a rate nearly double that of men. Distance to training locations and lack of childcare were significant barriers for women trying to complete vocational training programs in India. For adult literacy programs, dropout rates are often high, ranging from 17 per cent in Niger to 58 per cent in India.

Photo: KS

Low Participation in Adult Learning Programs

Low participation in adult learning programs is a sign that they are not always the answer. In Pakistan’s Skills for Employability program, even among poor households who expressed interest in vocational skills, more than 95 per cent did not enrol when given a voucher. Even when the government increased daily stipends and moved the training centres to villages, enrollment did not exceed 25 per cent. In Ghana, the demand for training by informal businesses is low because most managers do not see lack of skills as a constraint.

Three promising routes to more effective adult learning programs are

  • better diagnosis and evaluation
  • better design
  • and better delivery.

For better diagnosis and evaluation, systematic data collection before program design will identify the most important constraints for the target population. This information is also useful for customizing skills training. Administrative data from India’s massive National Rural Employment Guarantee Act program has offered powerful insights into local labour markets.

There is tremendous scope for improving the design of adult learning programs using insights from neuroscience and behavioural economics. Both practical exercises and visual aids are effective in adult learning because they help memory. Including motivational tools such as financial rewards, work experience, or frequent feedback have all been shown to boost adult learning. An experiment among young adults shows that offering rewards increases long-term performance gains after training.

As for delivery, flexible adult learning programs allow adults to learn at their convenience. In a voucher program for vocational training in Kenya, nearly 50 per cent of women cited proximity to a training centre as a determining factor in choosing a course. Given competing demands on adults’ time, training programs with short modules delivered through mobile applications are particularly promising. Delivering training programs via mobile phones better shields adult learners from potential stigma.

Adult learning programs are more successful when they are explicitly linked to employment opportunities. One popular way to do this is through apprenticeships or internships that link training to day-to-day experience and provide motivation through the promise of future economic returns. Skills training programs are more successful when the private sector is involved in developing the curriculum or training methods or in providing on-the-job training via internships or apprenticeships. Colombia’s Jóvenes en Acción (Youth in Action) program combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training at private companies. The probability of formal employment and earnings rose in the short term and has been sustained in the long run. The program has also demonstrated strong education effects, with participants more likely to complete secondary school and to pursue higher education eight years after the training. The likelihood of their family members enrolling in tertiary education also has increased.

Combining Training with Cash

The success of adult learning programs may also depend on addressing multiple constraints at the same time. Combining training with cash or capital in some cases is a direct way to boost effectiveness. In Cameroon, 54,000 people who participated in a program that coupled training with financial assistance found employment. Combining skills training with skills certificates, referral letters, and better information about job opportunities also may enhance effectiveness, especially for women. In Uganda, workers with more certifiable, transferrable skills have higher employment rates, higher earnings, and greater labour market mobility. A World Bank program in South Africa is attempting to improve job searches through peer support, text message reminders, and action planning.

Incorporating soft skills or sociobehavioral skills in training design has shown promise. In Togo, teaching informal business owners “personal initiative”—a mindset of self-starting behaviour, innovation, and goal-setting— boosted the profits of firms by 30 per cent two years after the program. This approach was much more effective than traditional business training. For factory workers in India, acquiring skills such as time management, effective communication, and financial management increased their productivity.

The Photo on Top: Korn V.

The article is from Chapter 4 (p81+): THE CHANGING NATURE OF WORK. WORLD DEVELOPMENT REPORT 2019. The World Bank 2019

Categories: TVET, Future Work, World, Lifelong Learning, Magazine

Photo: KS

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