21st Century Skill Development for Small Economies

This coming October, The London School of Economics’ Latin America and Caribbean Centre and the Inter-American Development bank are jointly hosting a conference called “Skills for Development in a Changing World.”

As the conference title suggests, the pressure of a fast moving, and highly competitive global 21st century economy presents real challenges to communities seeking to develop and maintain a skilled workforce.

Industry and business increasingly demands a dynamic and adaptable workforce. One of the central questions of the conference is how should regional communities define skills in such a dynamic environment, and once defined, how are the right skills promoted.

These questions are especially pressing to small economies facing a loss of industry, manufacturing, and growing competition in attracting new business.

Thankfully, select small communities throughout the United States are experiencing renewed success when they build a skilled workforce adapted to modern technology and innovation and geared toward succeeding in the region’s vision for the future.

While these success stories provide hope to smaller communities, they also illustrate the amount of foresight, planning, and collaboration required for similar success. With labor requirements changing so rapidly, small communities seeking to define how best to respond and ensure the development of a skilled work force is akin to shooting at a moving target.

If any region is in need of solving this dilemma it is Latin America and the Caribbean: as of 2016, Latin America and the Caribbean were last among emerging regions in providing business and industry with the skilled workforce. Underscoring this problem is a 2015 report of the World Economic Forum, which notes that 36% of firms surveyed said they have difficulty finding qualified workers in the region.

The Virgin Islands situation is no different from other communities within its region. The 2014 State Plan for the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) recognized these shortcomings. Specifically, the State Plan recognizes its status as a small community, and identifies the “changing dynamics” of the modern workplace as an obstacle to growth. It notes that, among other factors, “rising global and regional competitiveness”,  “a workforce with misaligned skill sets”,  and an “aging population and workforce” hampers the Territory’s effort to effectively compete.

If this alone does not provide incentive enough to invest in developing a modern, skilled workforce, the promise that a competitive workforce can help address other community issues, such as economic growth, innovation, inequality, and social exclusion should inspire action.

And, so we return to the original problem: how do small economies hit the moving target that is skill development in the 21st century?

The World Economic Forum report posits six key approaches:

  1. Focus on “21st Century Skills”. The report breaks down 21st century skills into “ways of thinking” creatively, innovatively, and critically; “ways of working” through effective communication and collaboration; “tools for working” based on new, information-age technology; and “skills for living in the world”, which include personal and social responsibility.
  2. Reform the education model. Focus on the quality and relevance of education to the regional and global workforce by making education more personal and relevant to sought -after skills rather than or in addition to quantitative measurements such as years of schooling.
  3. Reform the model for technical and vocational education and training (TVET). Training should provide more rigorous evaluation, and should better emphasize dual-apprenticeship opportunities through close collaboration with the private sector.
  4. Encourage greater cooperation between the public and the private sector. The report argues that such concerted efforts will work to the advantages of both sectors.
  5. Align education and training with a vision for industry and innovation. Formulate a “clear vision” for the region’s future, identifying specific industry sectors and promoting the relevant training programs accordingly.
  6. Encourage a culture of entrepreneurship. Policy should better promote “vibrant start-up ecosystems”, through business development services, supportive laws, and mentoring services.

These goals can only be reached through a concerted effort involving government, the private sector, and the community. Government can set policy direction and implement legislation. Implementation requires input and close cooperation between private companies and communities.

In this competitive global economy, if a region is slow to educate and train its workforce, it runs the risk of losing out on finite investment opportunities and access to leading technology, the report warns.

A recent summer program in the Virgin Islands, “Code Like a Girl,” seeks to address the lack of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) by introducing girls to these fields of study and encouraging skills and fluencies in technology and hard sciences that will be in high demand.

This program’s goal is well timed, but should be one initiative among many. There needs to be greater involvement on the part of governments, communities, and the private sector to achieve success.

By identifying the potential for women in areas of high growth and working to change the culture to achieve that growth, the community is proactively responding to the need for change in the 21st century.

There must also be a vigilant effort to identify trends and enact policy to keep abreast of developments in today’s global economy through collaboration and constant reassessment.

The Virgin Islands and the region needs to be prepared to implement dynamic reform and incorporate new ideas so that its workforce can constantly assess, correct and adapt to the dynamics of an ever-changing world-demand for skill development.

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