Youth skills: tackling challenges and seizing opportunities for a brighter future of work

Leveraging the ILO’s microdata, an analysis of global labour market and occupational trends highlights strategies to strengthen skills development and boost the competitiveness, agility, and resilience of youth.
© Marcel Crozet / ILO
© Marcel Crozet / ILO

The issue of skills is currently high on the global policy agenda, as evidenced by initiatives like the European Year of Skills 2023, and for good reason. In the aftermath of the pandemic, governments are seeking to strengthen skills development systems and promote lifelong learning, upskilling, and reskilling to support workforce competitiveness, agility and resilience in the face of future shocks and disruptions, and longer-term transformative trends such as the digital and green transitions. While this concerns all workers, it is critical for youth who face greater labour market obstacles than adults, who were hit hard by the pandemic through a double disruption to employment and education/training, and importantly, who constitute the backbone of our future workforce. This blog examines labour market and occupational trends for youth, providing insights on challenges and opportunities from a skills development perspective. 

Context matters: labour market realities of youth around the world

The labour force participation of youth (defined as individuals aged 15-24), as well as the economic, social, and cultural factors influencing it, vary across countries. For instance, countries in North America, and in Northern and Western Europe have relatively high labour force participation rates (LFPRs) for youth, despite high educational attainment levels among the working-age population. This is largely due to a culture of promoting part-time employment among youth, including those still in education and training. These regions have a large share of youth employment in retail trade and in the food and beverage services industries. In other regions, for instance in many countries in Central and South America, Central, Eastern and Western Africa, and Southeast Asia, relatively high youth LFPRs reflect economic necessity and young people leaving education and training earlier. In these regions, the largest shares of youth employment are in agriculture and retail trade. In regions such as the Arab States, Northern Africa and Southern Africa, LFPRs among youth are lower in many countries, and are accompanied by significantly high rates of youth not in employment education or training (NEET), particularly among young women. ILO global estimates indicate that young women are almost twice as likely as young men to be NEET, with an even larger gender gap in some contexts. The global NEET rate rose significantly during the pandemic (over 280 million young persons were estimated to be in this situation in 2020) and the recovery of youth employment has been slow and uneven across the world.

The different realities of working youth across the world are also reflected in their occupational structure, that is, in the jobs they hold. Service and sales workers (specifically, sales workers and personal service workers) account for a significant share of young workers, both male and female, in the largest number of countries around the world. Additionally, in many low- and lower-middle-income countries a large share of young women and men are working as market-oriented skilled agricultural workers and as subsistence farmers, fishers, hunters, and gatherers. For young women, clerical support workers and crafts and related trades workers (food processing, wood working, garment and other craft and related trades workers) also feature among the top occupations (defined here as accounting for more than 5 per cent of young female workers in a large number of countries). For young men, other occupations within the crafts and related trades group (building and related trades workers; metal machinery and related trades workers) and plant and machine operators (in particular, drivers and mobile plant operators) feature among the top occupations.

When the analysis is expanded to young adults (i.e. to include the age band 25-29), professionals and technicians and associate professionals appear among the top occupations. This partly reflects the higher qualification requirements of these skilled occupations, but also the accumulation of skills – including those gained through formal, nonformal and informal education and training – and experience. Expanding the analysis to the age group 15-29, therefore, enables us to capture late labour market entrants (following more years in education) and employment outcomes for youth who may have entered earlier but subsequently transitioned to other jobs. Indeed, labour force participation progressively increases across 5-year age bands between the ages of 15 and 29, and the composition of youth employment expands accordingly, becoming more diverse (i.e., encompassing a wider range of occupations). It is important to note, however, that the occupational distribution of employment will ultimately depend on demand-side factors as well (i.e., the availability of job opportunities across economic activities).

Occupational trends for youth

Looking at employment growth rates by occupation (at the two-digit ISCO level), we find that among 15-19 year olds, for both young men and women, personal service and sales workers are among the fastest growing occupations, defined here as having an annual employment growth rate of at least 5 per cent in the largest number of countries in our sample. In low, lower-middle and upper-middle income countries, market-oriented skilled agricultural workers are also among the fastest growing occupations. Employment as customer service clerks is also rapidly growing in many high-income countries for young women in this age band. For young men, rapid employment growth is taking place in construction sector occupations (e.g. building and related trades workers; metal, machinery and related trades; drivers and mobile plant occupations; stationary plant and machine operators). In short, in the youngest youth age band (15-19), employment growth is concentrated in occupations that already account for a large share of young workers and continue to absorb much of the growth in youth labour force over time.

As we move to the higher age bands, we find professional and associate professional and technician occupations among the fastest growing occupations. Information and communications technology (ICT) professionals are among the 5 fastest growing occupations for young men aged 20-24 and young women and men aged 25-29, although this is primarily driven by upper-middle- and high-income countries. In low- and lower-middle-income countries, digital divides (both in terms of digital skills and weak infrastructure) limit both the supply of workers with the adequate skills for these occupations, and the demand for these workers. Additionally, science and engineering professionals are among the 3 fastest growing occupations for young women aged 20-24 and 25-29 in many upper-middle and high income countries, which represents some encouraging evidence in terms of bridging the gender gap in science technology engineering and math (STEM) occupations in these countries. Health professionals are among the fastest growing occupations for young women and men aged 25-29, regardless of the country’s income level. Business and administration professionals and associate professionals and legal, social, cultural and related professionals and associate professionals are also among the fastest growing occupations for both young women and men aged 20-24 and 25-29, in many countries across the different income groups.

Addressing mismatch and skilling up youth through TVET, apprenticeships and internships

Evidence from microdata shows a high degree of mismatch in semi-skilled occupations in many countries around the world. Here, the share of young workers with lower secondary education or less who are employed in occupational groups generally associated with technical and vocational education and training (TVET) at the upper secondary or post-secondary level is used as a proxy for mismatch. This type of mismatch (high share of underqualified workers) reflects a situation where a large share of the workforce lacks the required qualifications. There can also be situations where limited high skilled employment opportunities result in large shares of overqualified workers, and situations where employers report skills shortages despite the availability of workers with the required qualification levels, for instance, because wages and working conditions may not be competitive among other factors. Indeed, there are many forms of mismatch and ways of measuring it. Nevertheless, the large shares of underqualified youth in semi-skilled occupations, in addition to the large proportion of young workers in low productivity jobs around the world suggests that there would be major benefits from enhancing youth skills through improved provision of quality TVET. In general, tackling skills mismatch involves more than ensuring workers have the adequate qualifications (degrees or certificates). It is about ensuring they have the skill set, including technical skills, knowledge and competences in addition to ‘soft’ skills, needed to effectively fulfil work-related tasks.  For this reason, the provision of quality TVET requires, among other things, close partnerships and collaboration between TVET institutions and employers, who can provide inputs into curricula development, training of trainers, assessment and certification processes, and opportunities for students to gain practical experience while they complete their training.

Apprenticeships and internships also enable youth to get valuable exposure and experience and gain important skills that will not only enhance their employability, but also raise their productivity, with benefits for both employers and workers. Available data suggests that participation in apprenticeships and internships is limited in most regions of the world. Less than 5 per cent of youth were participating in these activities in 43 countries out of 70 countries with available data. In a handful of countries, however, more than 25 per cent of youth were in apprenticeships or internships (e.g. in Austria, France, Switzerland, but also in Senegal and Sierra Leone). The important contribution of apprenticeship to skills development was recently reflected in the adoption of the latest international labour standard at the 111th Session of the International Labour Conference: the Quality Apprenticeships Recommendation, 2023.


Insights from the data analysed here suggests that young people around the world still do not have sufficient access to skills development and education, and productive and decent work opportunities. Bridging existing gaps requires strong policy support on behalf of governments and education and skills development providers, but beyond this, it requires the active engagement of social partners, employers’ and workers’ representatives, as well as community level actors, and of course, youth themselves. Skills development should be a collective effort, and part of a holistic approach to tackle the youth employment challenge, which involves addressing demand side constraints as well.

Today’s youth are tomorrow’s changemakers. Let’s make sure that they are equipped with the skills needed to navigate the challenges and seize the opportunities associated with the future of work, so that they may build more prosperous, inclusive, and peaceful societies.


  • Souleima El Achkar

    Souleima is an economist and labour market information specialist, with expertise in skills development systems. Since 2010, she has been working as a consultant on various projects for the ILO, Asian Development Bank and the World Bank.

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