Engaging the Business Community to Improve Youth Skills: A Conversation with Jamira Burley

Jamira Burley is Head of the Youth Engagement and Skills Initiative of the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education). GBC-Education brings the business community together to accelerate progress in delivering quality education for all of the world’s youth. It combines the voice, capabilities, resources, and innovations of over 100 companies and leading brands to address the leading challenges of education for children and youth. Beyond her role leading the Youth Engagement and Skills Initiative, Ms. Burley is an accomplished youth advocate with a wealth of experience leading youth initiatives on critical issues from gun violence to human rights to voter turnout. She has been recognized as a Champion of Change by President Obama, and by Forbes 30 under 30.

This article has been transcribed from a conversation between Ms. Burley and Tara S Ocansey from the Center for Sustainable Development’s Connect To Learn initiative, and highlights some of the key messages from GBC-Educations new report, written in collaboration with Deloitte, “Preparing tomorrow’s workforce for the Fourth Industrial Revolution”. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Tell us a little about GBC-Education’s mission.

The Global Business Coalition for Education was created back in 2012 with the idea that 1) young people need to have access to quality education wherever they are in the world, and 2) we can engage the business community in a more authentic and comprehensive way to have them not just advise on what quality of education looks like but to deep invest in quality of education around the world. Our goal is to look at most marginalized – through our programs Children On The Move, Girls’ Education, and most recently Youth Skills - so that those most disconnected from access to resources and opportunities can get the same quality of education as those who go to private school, for example

What are some of your proudest GBC-Education achievements to date?

Some of our proudest achievements were the creation of our REACT platform. Our REACT platform is dedicated to Children On The Move and children in emergencies. Different organizations around the world can apply for small grants and say ‘we need 20 computers’ and our different business partners can fill that void. Think of it as the Tinder to access in education for refugee youth. It matches the products or services of a corporation directly with the needs of young people on the ground. It removes the middle person and the waiting game of applying for grants.

What I’ve been working on this last year is our Youth Skills and Innovation initiative. It’s the first of its kind. In addition to launching the initiative we launched a commission of 17 individuals from 17 different industries - the business sector, bilateral organizations, government agencies - who are young people on the ground. It was a way for us to bring a wide range of stakeholders together to develop practical recommendations for how the business community can close the skills gap working in collaboration with different entities and looking at a collective approach for how we address education needs. A few years ago the goal was just to provide kids basic education by getting them in school, but we are seeing that isn’t enough. Five year olds today will have jobs 15 years from now that don’t currently exist. How can we make sure the skills they are gaining are qualifiable for the jobs that will be available, and also transferable so that 5-10 years from now we aren’t recreating the will and doing this over again? How do we equip young people with the skills they need to be active citizens and to make the change that they want to make? As a culmination to these questions, we just released our report on September 18th that offers a set of recommendations from the business community to the business community around a framework of how they can actually play a critical role in this crisis.

What made GBC-Education decide to conduct the research that has culminated in the report you’ve launched with Deloitte this week?

We are one of the only organizations that focuses on bridging the gap between education, business and young people, so we already have the network to accomplish it. Our mission was ensuring how do we bring these folks who are rarely at the same table together into a conversation that takes them a bit deeper than just providing basic education. It was about recognizing our own power, and more importantly, how we can ensure that the resources were adequately distributed amongst a wide range of stakeholders.

The report identifies one of the primary challenges as being to reposition discrete and disconnected programs as systemwide, unified sets of approaches. Can you describe an example of a set of disconnected programs that can be strengthened by coming together to pursue their goals in a more unified way that helps to overcome systemic barriers?

What we are seeing is that there are definitely solutions out there on small and large scales, but are they connected to the institutions of power, meaning the government, and are they connected to the institutions of education, meaning our traditional classrooms and universities? Are they actually serving the needs of their target audience? We want to ensure that there is an interconnecting community of all those different assets, so that what is aligning with this program or initiative make sense for the business community, government agencies, as well as the schools, so it requires these channels to open up. We are seeing that there are a lot of great programs in villages and cities around the world, but often government leaders have no idea, or funders don’t have access and can’t verify the programs to provide additional funding. So it’s about using our network to bridge those communities and connect folks who normally wouldn’t have access. We are launching the Action Hub to create an opportunity for folks to learn about programs that are actually working, be able to help scale them up, or at least be able to duplicate them in other communities. It will also create an avenue for a government official to say ‘I want to find out what programs are in my community that I can support’ and they would have an entire database to filter those initiatives based on the region or country they are in.

This is so important, since, from our side in the non-profit world, it can be difficult to reach potential donors who don’t accept unsolicited inquiries. It’s understandable that they don’t want to get flooded with proposals, but at the same time, how do good programs get on the radar of potential donors without such avenues?

I think its unproductive for donors to not have opportunities for unsolicited approaches or programs to come to them. If you think about who often are the program managers in these agencies, they’re not folks who have worked on the ground, they’re not from those communities, so they don’t have a real sense for what’s actually impactful work, and they’re disconnected from real change. Until you build a bridge where there are avenues for folks to get a real understanding for what works for impacting communities, you’ll continue to see the same kinds of programs, led by the same types of people, getting funding, even if they’re not impactful. I think one thing fundraisers have to debate with themselves is if it’s worth getting bombarded with a whole bunch of proposals, versus continuing to fund ineffective programs.

I think other cultures have done really well in cultivating a sense of community around the sharing of ideas and sharing of resources that isn’t a level of competition. That’s one thing we want to do with the skills initiative is figure out how we create an ecosystem where businesses see that this is not about a competition, this is for the benefit of all of us. This is about eventually increasing their bottom line, but its’ not solely about their bottom line. It’s also about ensuring that you create space for those who know the issues and who knows the communities to actually facilitate real relationships with those people.

We’re seeing now that non-profits are replicating unhealthy behaviors that are seen in the business community - creating this ultra-level of competition that doesn’t leave room for collaboration.

Deloitte conducted a literature review, interviews with industry leaders, innovators, global leaders, researchers, NGOs, and youth – are there any particular responses or insights that stand out in your memory that you feel are indicative of the overall findings?

What was inspiring through the course of this entire research process was we did consultations with young people, who are not waiting for someone to do the work. These are young people who were often appointed by a service organization that they work with, they are young people who have their own companies or non-profit organizations with social impact missions. That was really inspiring to think that while they are willing to be part of a conversation on how the business community can have an impact, they weren’t willing to wait for that to happen, they were taking action in their own communities, and they were open to sharing their ideas, sharing their resources. So for me while I’m excited about the role that businesses can play, I’m more excited about the transformation of youth leadership, and how they will continue to take the things that they value, and their form of leadership now into the workforce 10-15 years later, which I can only hope will bode well for the future of work and access to resources.

One of the activities identified to achieve the goals include building “new norms, culture change” What is an example of that?

One example is the commission itself. That businesses can find ways to collaborate with each other that aren’t in competition with each other. That businesses can see the value in providing quality education to young people beyond their bottom line. That businesses can take an active role in working with non-traditional collaborators like young people, like educators, like government leaders, for a mission that isn’t related to their own company. So for us, the new norm is cultivating a new series of leaders that have an active role in social justice issues, more specifically education, than they had before, and not just asking business leaders to write a check but to think critically about what knowledge do they have, what resources do they have beyond money, that they can contribute to a larger mission. For example, some companies have knowledge to share, or have technology that could be used for education. So for me it’s about how do we create an environment where there is a shared goal and mission that really puts the lives and futures of young people ahead of profit.

What do you see as some of the most in-demand skill areas for the members of your coalition? How much do the most in-demand areas differ depending on sector? Region of the world?

What we’re seeing is actually very similar across industries and across sectors. For the past 10 years or so the focus has been on technical skills, coding, robotics, artificial intelligence, all of which are important. But what we’re seeing that’s unique about the 4th industrial revolution is that new forms of technology that we’ve been creating over the past decade will actually be the gatekeepers to transforming what jobs look like in the future. You’ll have one machine that will take the place of thousands of jobs, and so what we’re seeing is that the skills that are in-demand now are non-cognitive skills, they are presentational skills, interpersonal skills, the ability to critically think for yourself and to come to an informed decision. These are not easy to measure, and are harder to implement in classrooms. So for us it’s thinking critically about how do we not totally take away from the importance of learning these technical skills, but how do we infiltrate them and combine them with other transferable skills, what others would call soft skills, in a critical way. The term “soft skills” doesn’t really convey the importance of those skills. When you think about young people now, forms of technology they have now – Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter – people are dating online – and people lack the ability to have genuine conversations and build real relationships, which I think will be the make or break for many young people’s careers if they can’t have a conversation or facilitate an interview with a potential employee. So, it’s really about teaching young people how to be human in a technical way. Young people need access to technology but they still need that human touch.

How can businesses better reach marginalized youth to help equip them with these skills?

One way businesses can engage our marginalized communities is by going to the experts. Finding locally based organizations who already have relationships with and are serving these young people. That’s not just organizations who do work around education, but also agencies who provide social services to young people or other institutions that young people filter through, like our criminal justice system. Being very creative about where we reach young people, and providing them a pathway to action or engagement. It’s not forcing young people to come to us. If we have to, we take a flight and go to that community and knock on doors. We did a survey of young people that was very effective because what we found was that there are still young people we are unable to reach because they don’t have a form of technology, they may not be able to read, they may not be able to comprehend what we’re asking them, and they may not be able to fully express themselves. Or we didn’t do the report in a language they understand. So it’s hiring people on your staff who know these impacted communities who can help you navigate how to get to them. It’s not recreating the wheel saying we need to create a new organization, its saying I’m going to support organizations who are already on the ground, who already have those relationships and trust, to ensure sustainability of that work. Because 10 years from now you may lose interest as a company, but that organization still has to serve those young people.

What’s really important too is that, if you’re a company, its recognizing that when we talk about education, we can’t forget about the host of other adversities young people are impacted by, because there could be pathways to engagement by those other issues as well. Whether that’s access to clean water, access to healthcare, access to a safe place to lay their heads, there are a number of avenues to go through. It’s about being creative, and being intentional with the population that you want to impact. Not being afraid to say I just want to focus on girls’ education in India” or “I just want to focus on boys and men of color” because if we’re all doing our part, hopefully we’ll move all young people forward and not try to do everything for everyone at the same time which will just water down our efforts.

If people start sharing their results and their methods early on, so that people can start learning from them, we can all hold each other accountable. There’s been a huge movement in the past years for open source data for cities, there needs to be a similar movement of open source data for organizations and companies who say they’re serving the public, and what that really means.

What recommendations do you have for NGOs and other program implementers and field practitioners to align their programs to the needs of the business community and to better align and collaborate with the business community, particularly the very local, small business community that may not be as engaged in these kinds of movements as a larger multi-national business?

What we’re struggling with now with our educational institutions is we’re actually teaching young people to train for jobs that don’t exist, and that’s a huge disservice. Nonprofits, education institutions and governments need to build a bridge with the business community and find out what jobs are going to look like for the future, and be very specific to the industries that are based in your country, city, or village, and try to align those goals and your program curriculum to fit those needs. Say you have a program that is supposed to, by the end, get the young person a job, and you haven’t actually taught them the skills for the jobs in the region they’re in, then you’ve done them a disservice. We need to develop collaborative programs with businesses that say, we know you’re going to train them for the jobs that will exist in 5-10 months, 5-10 years from now, and that when they graduate from their program, we’ll be willing to hire them. We’ve seen examples of that in the past, and we’re hoping to connect nonprofits who didn’t have relationships with businesses together. The struggle is we don’t know what those jobs are going to look like, its changing every day, so we have to be very diligent in recognizing that soft skills are universal, regardless of the industry. Not everyone needs coding.

If we can teach young people how to learn, they can teach themselves a new skill. What we’re finding is that we have to hand hold every child through the process of learning because they can’t comprehend on their own. Our education systems for so long have been about memorization, a test to a test, but not how to teach young people to question the answers, how to critically think about everything that they’ve known for so long and to do their own research and build their own hypothesis, and even if their hypothesis is correct today that they’re willing to go back and re-do it again when the data changes. We need to teach young people to teach themselves and to be curious and willing to be wrong. Willing to look at the intersections of different things to come to a solution. So if you’re looking at poverty, maybe using different kinds of technology like drones to track poverty in communities, or understanding how climate change impacts poverty. Really being curious and being willing to ask questions.

One thing we’ve seen in a lot of the places we work is that this idea becomes challenging because of cultural norms that encourage young people to defer to their elders and not to speak up to share their differing opinions or different ideas.

No matter what industry you’re in, often you find yourself overshadowed by the elders. Depending on the company or the country, it varies for different reasons. We need to have shared power with young people, because if you look at almost everything we’ve been using for the past two decades has been created by millennials, young people who didn’t wait for a major investor, didn’t wait for permission, who went against the grain of what was conventionally thought of for their industry and created something amazing that has transformed how we think. There needs to be opportunity for intergenerational dialogue, intergenerational connection that allows for young people to teach older folks and vice versa, because there is something to learn from each other, versus feeling like there’s a level of competition that prevents people from sharing power and sharing access to resources. It’s about trusting young people to do the job.

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