A rising education gap will translate into problems for companies

What’s happening? School closures and poor access to learning as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in growing learning loss across the global population, according to a McKinsey & Company report. While some regions, such as Europe and Central Asia and North America saw low-levels of learning delay (3.6 and 4.3 months, respectively), others, such as South Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean, experienced delays of roughly a year. Within those regions, inequalities in learning deepen along racial, socio-economic and gender lines. For example, in Ethiopia, rural students only achieved one-third of expected learning during the pandemic, whereas urban students were 50% behind. (McKinsey & Company)

Why does this matter? A growing education gap represents long-term problems for companies. Students who miss out on formative education are much less likely to get hired in our current working world, which is filled with education and qualification prerequisites.

Unfortunately, they’re also likely to be much less competent in essential skills like reading and writing. While that might seem like a stretch, data from the World Bank suggests that pre-pandemic, 50% of students in low- and middle-income countries were living in “learning poverty” – i.e. being unable to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10. As a consequence of the pandemic, that number may rise to 70%.

The domino effect – We’ve previously written about the talent gap being experienced right now as people are leaving jobs and retiring following the pandemic. With the effects on education we’re seeing, this could fuel not only another talent shortage, but slow down the global economy. By 2040, it’s believed that due to learning delays and consequent lower earning potential, the world could see a $1.6tn loss in economic productivity.

Middle-income nations looking to employ high-order skills toward mechanisation and automation will struggle for qualified and experienced candidates. India, for example, needs 34-100 million new graduates by 2030 to meet workplace demands, which can’t occur if students are unable to attend classes and failing exams.

In low-income nations students may not return to the classroom. In Uganda, for example, this could be as high as one-third of students. Even high-income nations like the US will be affected. McKinsey estimates predict between 1.7-3.3 million middle and high school students will drop out as a result of the pandemic.

Another consequence is that a less-educated generation would likely be less prepared to tackle the complex challenges of the future, like climate change and global social concerns like public health.

How can we intervene? There are a few key barriers to education equality: poor access to technology to facilitate learning (particularly remote learning), prolonged pandemic effects keeping schools closed, and a generally low cultural engagement with education and learning resources.

Companies can do lots to target these three areas. For example, working toward a fully-vaccinated global population, incentivising school attendance, relieving cost as a barrier to education, donating/building technical facilities for learning and simply funding initiatives that target education equality.

The World Economic Forum has also released a report on addressing the youth skills gap with targeted suggestions on intervention.

How can companies bolster talent? Unfortunately, effects of this learning gap are already beginning to show. A survey by the Association of Colleges showed 60% of SMEs believe there is a skills gap for entry-level employees and recent graduates. However, there are many opportunities for companies to change course and begin to invest in the education and training of their employees.

Apprenticeship schemes that provide vocational training and bridge skills gaps, tutoring, job shadowing, career mentoring, supporting educational establishments and advocating for effective educational policy, are all initiatives companies can begin to engage with immediately. It’s important to note that adult employees can also benefit from education and skills training.

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