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02 May 2013

The Meaning of Skills in Global Reports

Peliwe Lolwana, University of Witswatersrand

reportsThe sudden interest in skills development by global and large research agencies is contributing to a very active debate on the relationship of education to the labour market. Central to this debate is the notion that skills have become the ‘global currency of the 21st century’. There is currently an explosion of literature produced focusing on skills. But is there a common point of reference in the different reports, research, comments and opinion pieces when talking about ‘skills’? Obviously not, and this piece wants to illustrate just this diversity of concepts and definitions of skills.

Taking, the 2012 EFA Global Monitoring Report on Skills, the OECD Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives report as well as the McKinsey World at Work report, one can easily see that there is no unanimity in the way the term ‘skills’ is used in these three documents. The Global Monitoring Report (GMR) of 2012, for example, pays a lot of attention on the matter of skills – development and acquisition. In its report on ‘Youth and Skills’, the GMR considers general education skills as the primary skills needed by young people to succeed in the labour market. The GMR puts forward the case of how poor acquisition of foundational skills which are obtained in formal education further discriminates the disadvantaged students. The GMR notes that foundational skills obtained in formal and general education are not only crucial by themselves, but are also needed to build other skills in demand in the workplace, such as communication skills, problem-solving and critical thinking. This report emphasises the need for individuals to acquire foundational skills in order to stand a chance of getting jobs that pay decent wages. In the report, these points are illustrated by analysing the level of schooling of young people in the different economies and as it can be expected, low income countries have large numbers of individuals who have not acquired the foundational skills. Further, disparities in the acquisition of these skills, within the same countries can be found according to gender differences, family wealth and localities.

The second report reviewed here is the OECD (2012) Better Skills, Better Jobs, Better Lives. This report underscores the fact that benefits of skills go beyond just the labour market, but affect the individual’s health, civic and social behaviour of individuals as well as democratic engagement and business relationships, tackling of inequality and their appropriateness in employment. However, it is clear that in this report the term ‘skills’ is used for post-foundational skills. In other words, the type of skills used to make a case for better jobs and lives are those acquired after the foundational skills of general and often primary education. The report makes a strong case on how countries must invest, build and acquire these skills in order to have better jobs and societies. This report points to the limitation of past studies on skills that focused on formal education skills. In this report the emphasis is on adult skills, which include literacy, numeracy, problem-solving in technology-rich environments and skills used in workplaces. This brings together skills from general education and the ‘soft and hard’ skills in this broad definition.

The last report reviewed is the McKinsey Global Institute (2012) World at Work. In this report, the notion of skills is tied very closely to jobs and the economy. In fact this report presents a strong case on trends in different economies resulting in patterns on the type of skills that support different economies. The report suggests a stratification of skills from low to high, by education levels and economy levels. In other words, the lower the education levels acquired, the lower the skills and the lower the income levels of the country. In the report, qualifications are used as a proxy for skills instead and presenting patters that show the qualification levels of different income countries, with high income countries boasting  larger quantities of higher qualifications than the low income countries. Also, there is an interesting tracking of the movement of skills from simple and physical work like subsistence farming to higher skills in manufacturing, construction and services in different countries that goes with more investments in the general education, hard technical skills as well as soft skills. In this report, it is clear that high income countries are pushing at the top in their investments in skills for productivity, with the emphasis not only in higher education, but in Science, Technology and Mathematics. Finally, the point that is made here is that different sets of skills are directly related to different sets of industries and different income levels for a country.

In conclusion, there seems to have been really strong attention paid to the skills lately. This is good as this is an education area that has been neglected for a long time by these global agencies that hold so much influence on the education trajectories of different countries. But the reader of these reports must be discerning in reading this literature as the notion of skills still carries many and very differing meanings.

Peliwe Lolwana is a Professor at the University of Witswatersrand, working on an education policy research programme. Email:

This blog post also appears in NORRAG NEWS 48, 2012: The Year of Global Reports on TVET, Skills & Jobs Consensus or diversity? (April 2013), available free online at

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