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YouthPower Action studies provide new guidance on how to strengthen youth soft and life skills

August 23, 2017

Whether they are called socioemotional skills, soft skills or life skills, a core set of skills is needed for young people to successfully transition into adulthood. Defined by the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Workforce Connections project as “a broad set of skills, behaviors and personal qualities that enable people to effectively navigate their environment, relate well with others, perform well and achieve their goals,” these skills can be as important as other longstanding measures, such as IQ, in predicting educational outcomes, workforce success, healthy behaviors and violent behaviors.

students working on posterTo create greater coherence on youth skills across disciplines, the YouthPower Action project — led by FHI 360 and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) — recently produced three studies that provide evidence-based responses to common questions:

  • Skill identification: Is there a common set of soft and life skills that predict positive outcomes in workforce development, violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health?
  • Skill measurement: How can soft and life skills best be measured in international youth development programs, and what tools are available and accessible?
  • Skill building: What does the evidence show about effective strategies for developing soft and life skills among youth?

In the first study, Key Soft Skills for Cross-Sectoral Youth Outcomes, the authors conducted an extensive literature review and consulted practitioners and researchers to identify a core set of skills linked to positive outcomes in the areas of violence prevention and sexual and reproductive health (see figure). This report builds on earlier work supported by USAID and FHI 360 that identifies five key soft skills for workforce success. Together, these two studies identify three skills —positive self-concept, self-control and higher-order thinking — as among the top five skills in all three areas. Social skills rank among the top five skills for workforce development and violence prevention, while communication ranks among the top five across workforce development and sexual and reproductive health. Empathy is critical for violence prevention, while goal orientation is critical for sexual and reproductive health.

Key Soft and Life Skills across Fields

Key soft and Life Skills Across Fields infographic

In the second study, Guiding Principles for Building Youth Soft Skills among Adolescents and Young Adults, the authors identify six guiding principles for designing and implementing effective skill-building programs. They base their findings on a literature review, meta-analyses, existing soft skills guides and other literature from U.S. and international programs. The authors present a framework that emphasizes experiential learning as a core skill-building strategy, integrating learning across contexts (home, work, community and school) and creating supportive learning environments. Learning skills in combination, meaningful relationships and positive staff practices are also identified as important. The report provides specific examples of effective practice in applying each principle.

Measuring Soft and Life Skills in International Youth Development Programs: A Review and Inventory of Tools, the third study, reviews nearly 300 existing skill-measurement instruments that can be used or adapted for youth programs in developing countries. The report reveals which tools scored highly against review criteria and suggests recommendations for improving the measurement of soft skills generally. The study also identifies several key weaknesses and limitations of the current tools, including self-report measurement biases and a lack of sensitivity to changes in skill levels. Included is a link to an inventory that describes and rates the quality of more than 70 instruments through which practitioners can identify the tools that meet their needs. The authors recommend the development of an assessment tool focused on the key cross-cutting soft skills, designed specifically for use in international youth programs.

These three reports offer practitioners and policymakers a better understanding of which skills to prioritize and how to design and implement programs to help youth build these skills, along with guidance on how to measure these skills and where to find the specific instruments to achieve this. To continue to fill the gaps and weaknesses in measurement instruments, YouthPower Action and an advisory group are developing an instrument, to be piloted next year, that will be tailored for the needs of international youth development programs.

Photo credit: Jessica Scranton/FHI 360