Microsoft’s Akhtar Badshah spoke at Mercy Corps May 2, sharing his perspectives on the global youth skills crises and what Microsoft is doing to help. Education Week sat down with Dr. Badshah to discuss the state of science, technology, engineering, and math education in the U.S., what role if any companies should play in helping to close achievement gaps, and how the United States' performance in those areas compares to that of other countries. Listen to the audio of that interview here.
An evolving job market and outdated education system has left millions of youth around the world without the skills or opportunities to get a decent job after graduation. Microsoft wants to change that.
There are strong forces at work: 1 billion youth between 15-24 years, more than ever before in history. A global recession that left more than 75 million of these working-age youth unemployed. And a job market that increasingly requires tech-based skills not taught in most schools around the world. But, says Microsoft, these forces aren’t insurmountable. Global business should not only be creating jobs but also helping prepare tomorrow’s workforce with the skills they will need for those jobs.
Speaking to a crowd of 50,000 young Indonesian entrepreneurs at a soccer stadium last month, Akhtar Badshah, Microsoft’s senior director of citizenship and public affairs, shared his company’s quest to bridge the divide between those who have access to skills and job opportunities and those who do not.
“Technology has a role to play in how we can level the playing field and how we can provide access to youth in underprivileged communities,” Akhtar wrote in a recent blog post. “But technology has to be connected with empowering youth by building their skills, by inspiring them to innovate and become change-makers. Finally we have to invest in them through time, talent and treasure so we can support them to realize their potential and that they create a world that they can thrive in.”
Employers that are opening up positions are increasingly finding a weak candidate pool. A March 2012 report by the International Youth Foundation provided snapshots of the global challenge:
- Approximately 40 percent of firms in Brazil have difficulty finding qualified staff to fill their job vacancies. World Bank researchers found that a firm’s difficulty in finding qualified people to fill vacant positions was directly associated with its use of new technologies. Yet, although Brazilian employers have difficulty hiring qualified staff, nearly 18 percent of youth are unemployed.
- In the Middle East and North Africa, there is a mismatch between the jobs young people prepare for and the realities of local job markets. Civil service jobs in MENA are declining, but many young people continue to invest in education that readies them for administrative work in the public sector, while the private sector struggles to expand.
- In 2008, 40 percent of central and eastern Europe’s private-sector employers in middle-income countries believed that low skills in the workforce were a constraint on economic growth. Skills that employers believe enhance workplace effectiveness include critical thinking, problem solving, conflict management, showing respect for self and others, making healthy life choices, and civic responsibility. But these are not skills traditionally addressed by the curricula of central and eastern European schools.
- The problem is a serious one in the U.S. as well. A February 2012 story in the Washington Post described a factory in Michigan that has been trying for seven months, with no success, to fill several vacancies with skilled workers who can operate and program computerized machinery.
Microsoft’s YouthSpark initiative is the company's answer, a vision to support 300 million youth around the world by narrowing the technology skills gap; aiding global workforce development; and creating opportunities for young people to pursue additional education find a job or start their own business.
The skill-development aspect can’t be underestimated. New York Times op-ed columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote about how online resources like Wikipedia have made memorizing rote knowledge obsolete, though most education systems haven’t caught up to the change.
“We teach and test things most students have no interest in and will never need, and facts that they can Google and will forget as soon as the test is over. Because of this, the longer kids are in school, the less motivated they become," noted Tony Wagner, Harvard education specialist, in Friedman’s column.
Friedman added, “Because knowledge is available on every Internet-connected device, what you know matters far less than what you can do with what you know. Young people who are intrinsically motivated—curious, persistent, and willing to take risks—will learn new knowledge and skills continuously. They will be able to find new opportunities or create their own—a disposition that will be increasingly important as many traditional careers disappear.”
Badshah believes that once youth get the “spark” of inspiration, they’ll need a variety of tools and resources along their journey, which should come from the public, private and civil society sectors acting on their own and in partnership. That’s where Microsoft YouthSpark comes in.
Through YouthSpark, Microsoft is dedicating the majority of its cash contributions to nonprofits that serve the youth population around the world. YouthSpark programs include Innovate for Good, the Imagine Cup, the Microsoft Innovation Centers, BizSpark and DreamSpark among other offerings such as discounts for software including Office 2013 desktop applications and Windows 8, and access to Skype in the classroom, a free global community for teachers to connect their students with others around the world.
Badshah will be speaking in Portland, Oregon, at Mercy Corps’ Action Center about the young people he has met around the world and how business can help youth prepare for the meaningful careers they desire.
See Akhtar Badshah speak at Mercy Corps May 2, 7pm. Tickets ($5 student, $10 regular).
Read Akhtar Badshah’s contributions to the Huffington Post.
Follow Akhtar Badshah and his team on Twitter: