Since the global economic recession began in 2008, countless headlines have warned that the younger generation—those just leaving school and looking for their first real work experience—will be the hardest hit. This is certainly true in the short term, as lack of job options force students to take jobs below their skill levels. But there are also long-term repercussions, as an early period of joblessness can affect a person’s earnings and employability for life.
Some of the challenges this younger generation faces are systemic—lack of teacher training in entrepreneurial learning methods, limited access to education for 21st-century skills in schools, the need to modernize vocational training, etc.—and there are countless debates on how to tackle those issues. But in my career as an entrepreneur and educator, I have noted a number of missed educational opportunities that schools and teachers could implement immediately, with minimal effort or expense, to improve lives and employment options for these students.
One of the lowest-cost, highest-return investments we can make to improve youth employment prospects is to instil entrepreneurial skills and corporate citizenship values in students while they are still in school, supplementing the standard curriculum of math, science, history, and literature with practical classes that focus specifically on entrepreneurship and social innovation.
For those students who do receive this type of education, the results are notable. Over the last decade, my colleagues at Junior Achievement Young Enterprise (JA-YE) in Sweden and Norway have regularly researched students engaged in entrepreneurship education via the JA-YE Company Program. This program gives students ages 15 to 18 the opportunity to form a mini-corporation with the advice of volunteer business advisers. The researchers have been recently creating control groups of individuals who match the target group in number, background, and age—the only important differentiating factor is participation in entrepreneurship education. In the Norwegian survey, the study showed that there are 50 percent more start-ups among former students than members of the control group. Also, 12 percent of the JA-YE Company Program participants established their own businesses by age 25, compared to 8 percent of the control group.
Moreover, the students involved in these kinds of programs are 4-5 times more likely to apply ethics and CSR values to their business models. They have an easier time securing a job than their peers and typically earn higher salaries. Overall, they show higher levels of self-confidence than their peers.
In times of tight resources, one of the best options for making such improvements in education is to build public-private partnerships, channelling resources from governments, ministries of education, and the private sector to train teachers and engage the expertise of practitioners and local networks.
JA-YE works with schools and the business community all over the world to develop innovative education programs, and is currently working with Hewlett-Packard to provide e-mentoring to students in 13 countries (including France, the US, Slovakia, China, and Egypt). The program, called Social Innovation Relay, encourages students to apply entrepreneurial thinking to social challenges. The students work in teams and take their ideas into an online environment where they compete in several elimination rounds, starting locally and advancing to an international final. The program was designed to improve students’ business savvy, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. At the same time, it improves their awareness of how to create opportunities for themselves while also making the world a better place.
This year’s entries included a solar-powered lamp designed to bring light to students studying in South Africa’s slums and a program that trains Chinese teenagers to provide companionship for China’s elderly—a key challenge in a country with a rapidly ageing population.
Through programs like these, governments (through supportive policies in the school system and teacher training) and business communities (through engaging employees and global networks) have co-invested in entrepreneurship and social innovation education, and supported strong school-to-work schemes—and they are achieving great results in the fight against youth unemployment. Meanwhile, participating students are channelling their enthusiasm, optimism, and intelligence into financially viable endeavours that have a positive impact on their communities.
The average cost per student for initiatives like the Social Innovation Relay in Europe is just 20 euros per year. Yet, entrepreneurship education and fostering social innovation go on to generate far greater value in terms of skills development and significant economic returns, as they foster new businesses, increase employability, and reduce state social costs. A recent report from the European Round Table of Industrialists, “Attitudes to Work,” states, “A shift in attitude towards a more entrepreneurial approach to work in which people seize opportunities to demonstrate their talents would benefit public and private sectors and would contribute significantly to continued prosperity.”
Around the world, governments provide a lot of lip service to the importance of including social innovation and corporate citizenship in schools, but not enough leaders have genuinely pushed for national action on the ground. Let’s invest more in tried-and-tested public-private partnerships that deliver long-term local impact—the ones that provide educators with what they need to be successful and that increase the number of young success stories. This is what will drive the sea change we need to see in schools. Others will see their achievements and want to be a part of it.