“When I was preparing to come to Delhi for a job, everyone in the village laughed and asked how it was possible that my village education would find me a job in a big city," recalled a 22-year-old Tabassum Naaz in 2010. They probably assumed her credentials would be too humble to be of use. Yet like thousands of others across India, from the 1990s onward, Tabassum did find a job (in her case, at Aegis business process outsourcing in Gurgaon, on the outskirts of Delhi). Her studies—at a little-known college in Bihar, one of the lowest-income states in India—were sufficient, because, to put it simply, there were employers seeking workers with her skills.

Many actors in international development today are rightly worried about youth unemployment; despite success stories like Tabassum’s, youth unemployment remains stubbornly high across developing countries: in 2022, it stood at 24.8 percent in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), 20.5 percent in Latin America, 14.9 percent in Asia and the Pacific, and 12.7 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, initiatives in this space tend to focus on the labor supply side, supporting skills development and education. The World Bank, for example, invested around $1 billion per year between 2002 and 2012 on skills training programs focused on youth. A search for “youth unemployment” in the World Economic Forum website reveals an overwhelming focus on skills development: A 2010 report lists “quality and relevance of education” as the first cause of youth unemployment, a 2016 article calls for training or job readiness programs to address youth unemployment in Latin America, and a 2020 article suggests teaching English, digital, and soft skills to solve the challenge in the MENA region. Other examples abound: Mastercard Foundation, which aims to address youth unemployment in Africa by creating 30 million jobs, identifies “improving the quality of education and vocational training” and “leveraging technology to connect employers and job seekers” as its first two strategies to enable job creation. A review of 75 youth employment programs in the MENA region centered on technical skills training, followed by soft skills training.

Tabassum’s story suggests a different approach. She represents a phenomenon in India that has been substantiated by multiple research studies: employment opportunities driving educational attainment. In this case, education enrollment (especially in English-language schools) actually increased near new IT centers. In other words, rather than education producing good jobs, it was the emergence of “good” jobs, that require certain skills, which incentivized parents to invest in their children’s education. But if a supply of jobs drives an increase in educational attainment, rather than the reverse, then it suggests a shift in orientation for the development community. Addressing youth unemployment by equipping young people with better skills is surely worthwhile in itself, but if not coupled with efforts to create new jobs, skill development initiatives, alone, will not solve the unemployment challenge.

Read the full article about youth unemployment by Kartik Akileswaran, Jonathan Mazumdar and Angela Perez Albertos at Stanford Social Innovation Review.