Why have a World Youth Skills Day?

15th July is World Youth Skills Day. What does this really mean? Alumnus Chris Waterman discusses the importance of this day and why we should all get involved whatever our age!

Special days are important for all sorts of reasons: New Year’s Day is celebrated all round the world (although the Chinese have two “new year’s”) and May 1st is also a public holiday in many countries; religions have special days; and many countries have their own national days, including a National Heroes Day in Jamaica and Independence Day in quite a few countries.

So what’s special about WYSD? Well, first of all, 15th July 2016 is only the second such day, which makes it the youngest “day.” Even more important is that it is global.

Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General was clear that:

“Skills development reduces poverty and better equips young people to find decent jobs. It triggers a process of empowerment and self-esteem that benefits everyone.”

which is why the focus this year is on technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

In many developed countries, where technical and vocational education and training is readily available, the focus has moved quite sharply to the softer skills, with strong inter-personal skills often making the difference in doing really well in a job or even getting a job in the first place. This is because the ability to work in a team is now recognized as crucial and many more jobs in the service sector involve face-to-face contact with the customer.

The United Nations and national governments produce global and national policies, which global companies and local SMEs implement but I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve done, and continue to do, to develop youth skills.

I’m not sure how I’d define “youth” – although I know that mine ended half a century ago. If I stretch it to, say between 7 and 27 (rather longer than the UN of 15 to 24), it gives me license to talk about what I’m doing, at the micro level, to develop youth skills.

Most recent was last week when, as Chancellor of the West London Children’s University, I presented certificates to 70 “youths” between 7 and 11, for the hours they had put into extra-curricular activities with their schools and partner organisations. Every one of them had been empowered by their experience, which had, in turn, raised their self esteem. All of the activities involved being in a team of some sort.

Earlier in the year, on World Book Day, I organized a poetry reading in the House of Commons that 70 year six students came to and then took the tour of the Palace of Westminster. They saw that even MPs are only human beings (notwithstanding some pretty inhuman behavior of late).

I’m regularly shadowed by some older “youths” who are studying politics, law or history at A level, in the hope that they learn some facts but will also observe some of the inter-personal skills I use to influence what happens.

At the start of the school year I was on the first year sixth induction day “carousel” talking about breaking laws and making laws. I explained to the soon-to-be voters how important it was to use their skills to analyse what was on offer before putting their X in one of the boxes on the ballot paper.

I’ve looked at CVs and given mock interviews to interns and researchers looking for a first job or a new job, with bits of mentoring thrown in to develop interpersonal skills and, with Parliament and universities finishing for the summer, I’m employing an undergraduate of two to do some research and writing for me – another bit of skill-development.

I’m lucky because I control my own diary and can find time to do quite a bit that could be seen as developing youth skills, usually on a 1:1 basis. But (there is always a but), how many people who have left their youth behind them could also find time to help develop the softer skills in a some of their local youth? (I know that many do.)

When I was 11, I met an American couple on a Thames boat trip that was part of a school outing to London. They seemed incredibly old to me and when, after chatting them from Westminster to Windsor, Leonard said he would write to me, I told him he was far too busy. His reply: “if you want something done, ask a busy man.” His first letter arrived a couple of months later and we exchanged letters and Christmas cards for several years. Even with the benefit of 50 years’ hindsight, it’s hard to quantify the impact of that conversation and those letters, but it’s one of my most significant and lasting memories.

So, while we wait for the UN’s plans to filter down around the world, let’s use World Youth Skills Day to see if we can get more people involved in a small scale “process of empowerment and self-esteem” for a youth or two.

One of our IMAGINE themes is Educating for 21st Century Lives. Find out more about our education projects at www.reading.ac.uk/imagine.