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Youth Economic Opportunities Conference 2013: Are life skills for youth worth the investment?

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At the 2013 Making Cents: Global Youth Economic Opportunities Conference during the session titled, “Life Skills and Youth Economic Outcomes: Where’s the Proof?” Daniel Oliver, Director of Learning and Evaluation at the International Youth Foundation, posed the central question: “Many of us think life skills are important, but are they worth the investment? Why should we invest in it?” Presenters Kate Anderson of the Brookings Institute, Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo of School to School International, and Sara Heller from University of Pennsylvania presented evidence from studies on why investing in life skills for youth is important.

Kate Anderson presented findings from a well-rounded education task force, comprised of research groups, national and regional governments, Education for All agencies, regional political bodies, civil society, and donor agencies. This education community proposed a learning framework, composed of seven domains—physical well-being, social and emotional, culture and the arts, literacy and communication, learning approaches and cognition, numeracy and mathematics, and science and technology—as important areas of development for all children and youth. In regard to measuring learning outcomes, the task force stressed practical learning implementation, such as the ability to transfer knowledge in math to everyday decisions.

Thomaz Alvares de Azevedo presented an impact evaluation on an information technology (IT) employability training. The program’s objective was to increase the employability and income generating capabilities of women. The program included a labor market assessment of the IT sector, a technical training component, life skills training, internships, and job placement programs six months after graduation. The impact evaluation had two treatment groups, one with training in information, communications, and technology (ICT) and life skills, the other with training in ICT only, in addition to the control group. The three research questions this evaluation sought to answer were:

  1. Does the program improve self-confidence of participants?
  2. Does the program produce technical knowledge and skills that will allow the young women to obtain work in IT and related sectors?
  3. Did the program have a positive effect on their income-generating capability?

The findings revealed that the treatment group that received the added life skills training demonstrated an increase in confidence, especially when it came to employability. There was also a 14 percent increase in the likelihood of program participants to obtain work in IT and related sectors, a statistically significant finding. Finally, the study also revealed an increased in income-generating capability.

Sara Heller of the University of Pennsylvania presented a domestic study on how we can improve life outcomes for disadvantaged youth through cognitive behavior therapy. This study looked to change the automatic thoughts (rapid, intuitive processing) that arise before key decisions. The program implemented cognitive behavioral therapy to target decision-making and self-regulation through a 27-week curriculum, which included check-ins, self-regulation activities, clinical assessments, and non-traditional sports. The program engaged 1,267 youth in the control group and 1,473 in the treatment group. The study measured academic and engagement performance as well as criminal behavior. It found that behavior is remarkably elastic to modest investments. It turns out that tendencies toward criminal behavior could not be solely attributed the lack of rapid, intuitive processing, as there were likely other external factors at play. While positive results were recorded in the presence of a mentoring component, the researchers added that it may not be the only mechanism contributing to the findings, since there continued to be academic benefits in the follow-up year when mentoring was absent. Automatic decision-making was found to be a potential and important cause of at least some dropout and violence, and proved to be malleable. Social-cognitive therapy was also found to be effective.