Enhancing the non-cognitive skills of disconnected youth

By Glenda Quintini.

Youth who have disconnected from the education system and are not working or planning to return to training are at high risk of marginalisation. Some of these young people are homeless, have disabilities, have been in foster care and/or are known to the justice system. Efforts to create programmes that succeed in reconnecting these at-risk young people to education, the labour market and society more generally as early as possible are key. However, this is easier said than done. This group of highly-disadvantaged youth face multiple challenges in addition to lacking the skills and qualifications to reintegrate school or the labour market. Any intervention requires addressing all these needs in a comprehensive way.

Like other programmes to facilitate school-to-work transitions, those targeted on disconnected youth focus on providing participants with strong cognitive skills. This includes both foundation skills – such as literacy, numeracy and problem solving – and job-specific skills – in many cases vocational or job-related skills that facilitate labour market entry at the end of the programme. Unlike other programmes, however, there is a strong focus on fostering the non-cognitive skills of participants such as motivation, resilience, trust, communication and team work skills.

The World Bank (Guerra, Modecki, Cunningham, 2014) has come up with the PRACTICE taxonomy to summarize key non-cognitive skills that are relevant to employers. The taxonomy is consistent with what has been studied in the non-cognitive skills literature, and was developed by identifying employer demanded skills and matching them to common indicators in the non-cognitive skills literature, such as Big Five and the Grit scale. Not only is this taxonomy useful to highlight the importance of non-cognitive skills in responding to employers’ skills needs but it also serves as guidance to identify non-cognitive skills commonly targeted by interventions for improving labour market outcomes.

Table 1. PRACTICE Skills, Sub-Skills, Big Five Traits, and Biological Foundations

Blog19.1Source: Guerra, N., K. Modecki and W. Cunningham (2014), “Developing Social-Emotional Skills for the Labour Market: the PRACTICE Model”, World Bank Policy Research Discussion Paper No. 7123.

Having said this, not everybody buys into the relevance of non-cognitive skills as a policy tool to improve labour market outcomes. Critics believe that these skills are very difficult to “affect” or “influence”, at least beyond early childhood. So, is there evidence that non-cognitive skills can be fostered to facilitate re-integration in education or employment? Yes BUT successful programmes are long and costly.

Non-cognitive skills are normally “taught” in number of ways: through mentoring, whereby youth are associated to an adult who provides guidance and serves as a role model; the frequent use of one-to-one tutoring to foster learning through individualised support; work with the family to ensure/improve parental involvement; and/or a residential settings to take youth away from a disruptive family/social environment.

Because the fostering of non-cognitive skills is often a component, among others, of successful programmes for disconnected youth, evaluations of its effects on education and labour market outcomes are hard to single out. Participants in disconnected-youth programmes often cite mentoring as key to their success in acquiring qualifications or finding work at programme completion. This is the case of well-recognised programmes, with a track record of proved effectiveness for disconnected youth such as: Job Corps – a US residential programme for disconnected youth with a strong focus on education, employability and social development; Youth Build – a US programme replicated internationally, focusing on 16-24 year olds to provide academic credential and vocational training in the construction field; or the French EPIDE (Etablissments pour l’Insertion dans l’Emploi) – a residential re-employment programme for disconnected youth with a strong focus on social and civic education.

Evidence of the effectiveness of actions to foster non-cognitive skills also comes from initiatives exclusively focused on their development. Although many of these programmes have not been the object of rigorous evaluations – very few, for example, are tested using random assignment methods – some have yielded positive cost-benefit evaluations. Because non-cognitive skills can be fostered in a variety of environment, actions take place in several different contexts.

The international Big Brothers Big Sisters mentoring programme – an after-school programme for at-risk youth – has yielded positive long-term impacts of matching adult volunteer mentors with young people aged 6-18 to support them in reaching their potential over the course of a year. Outcomes include improved self-worth, better relationships with peers and parents, reduced substance misuse and improved academic outcomes. Some youth arts and sports interventions have also been found to significantly improve young people’s self-esteem, confidence, emotional control, organisation and leadership skills. Finally, some family based interventions have been successful in promoting positive parenting, enhancing child and adolescent social and emotional skills, reducing problem behaviours and improving academic performance and attachment to school (Incredible Years, Families and Schools Together, Strengthening Families Programme; Social Skills Group Intervention-Adolescent).

But action on non-cognitive skills does not come cheap. The programmes that have been most successful in enhancing participants’ employment and education outcomes are residential, last several months – close to a year, in most cases – and cost between 15000 and 25000 USD per participant. All in all, if the alternative is lifelong welfare dependency (with a high risk of intergenerational transmission) or a prison sentence (approximately 80000 per inmate per year in the United States) the cost may still be worth it.

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