Expert views

How digital skills can help tackle youth unemployment

3 July 2018
Astadjam Bamanga Abbas, and William Natta, International Telecommunication Union

Youth have to be equipped with the knowledge and skills needed for a digital future

Some 66.6 million young women and men are unemployed and 144.9 million young workers are employed but living in poverty, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). On the other hand, research by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) points out that there will be tens of millions of jobs available for people with advanced digital skills in the coming years.

Equipping young women and men with job-ready, transferable digital skills can enhance their employment opportunities and trigger a virtuous circle of improved labour market outcomes, increased productivity, innovation and economic growth for economies around the world.


Addressing a global challenge such as youth employment requires global action. While it is generally agreed that young people are natives of the digital realm, relatively few possess the skills needed in the digital economy and employers around the world are struggling to find skilled professionals equipped with the technical and soft skills they desire. In light of the youth employment crisis and the job opportunities available for people equipped with digital skills, the question of skills training therefore becomes central.

Governments, the private sector, civic organizations and academia each have a responsibility in equipping young people and young entrepreneurs with the digital skills necessary to be active members of the digital economy.

The Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth campaign, led by ITU and the ILO, aims to incentivize stakeholders to train and equip 5 million young people by 2030 with job-ready, transferable digital skills; foster digital jobs for youth; and promote an enabling environment for youth employment and entrepreneurship in the digital economy.

Such global initiatives also align with the suggestions made by the United Nations Commission on Science and Technology for Development in its report ‘Building digital competencies to benefit from existing and emerging technologies, with a special focus on gender and youth dimensions’. It recommends closer collaboration among different international organizations and the civil society to enhance digital skills.


Of course we can not talk about youth unemployment and digital skills without addressing the issue of gender imbalance. Not only are women more likely to work in more precarious and low-paying jobs, they also have fewer opportunities in regard to access, use and education when it comes to digital technologies and skills. ITU statistics estimate that the proportion of men using the internet is higher than the proportion of women in two-thirds of the countries worldwide and UNESCO figures show that only 3% of information and communication technology (ICT) students are female.

Global initiatives such as the ITU International Girls in ICT Day Campaign encourage girls and young women to take up ICT-related studies and careers through hands-on and engaging activities. They can be instrumental in addressing the digital gender gap and in ensuring all young people have the same opportunities to become active leaders in the digital economy.

The global partnership EQUALS is another effort. Initiated by ITU, UN Women, the International Trade Centre, GSM Association and the United Nations University, it aims to achieve digital gender equality and improve the livelihoods of millions of women around the world through awareness raising and resource mobilization.


Formal education channels are instrumental in providing young people with basic skills needed to lay the foundation for successful professional careers across sectors.

Therefore, school curriculums should be adapted to make sure young people are equipped with the skills and learning attitudes needed to thrive in a constantly and rapidly changing job market. These skills include basic digital skills and computational thinking as well as the ability to become adaptable lifelong learners.

In light of the fast pace of technological change and the generally slow pace of formal educational institutions to adapt to such changes, non-formal education can play a critical role in providing young people with further opportunities to hone their digital skills and adapt their skills set to job-market needs. These include programmes offered by public libraries, community centres and after-school or tech clubs as well as coding bootcamps and other non-formal training providers focused on advanced digital skills.


Digital skills touch every aspect of work and life; a comprehensive approach is therefore essential when designing skills-development programmes. There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to developing a national digital skills strategy.

Differences in priorities, resources and stakeholders heavily impact the ability to plan a comprehensive policy.

In this context, in 2018 ITU published the Digital Skills Toolkit to support ITU members and a wide range of stakeholders in building their national strategies. The toolkit is aimed at policymakers and partners in the private sector; non-governmental organizations; and academia. It provides a roadmap, best practices, links to existing training resources and concrete tools and examples on how to develop effective and comprehensive digital skills strategies.


Considering the pervasive role digital technologies play across sectors and geographic regions, and the uncertain future employment landscape, it is crucial to address the skills-development issue through multi-stakeholder partnerships and to leverage the knowledge and resources that public, private and civil-society actors can provide to ensure long-lasting and impactful actions.

Joining initiatives such as the Digital Skills for Decent Jobs for Youth Campaign and making commitments to help train 5 million young people with the necessary skills are some of the steps that can be taken to address the youth employment challenge by improving labour market outcomes for youth through digital skills.