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Talking the Youth Skills Gap with Steven Li

How a Young Next Gen Founder Has Been Tackling an Important Issue

“We need to combine solutions that teach our students both soft and hard skills, and do so through practice rather than mere theory.”

Steven Li is like many of the founders in Next Gen – he’s young, bright, and incredibly ambitious. A rising freshman in college, he’s done more than I – and 99.9% of the population – had by that time in my life. The common thread I find with all young founders is an area of expertise and a niche passion that drives them. The projects they pursue and work to create are not random. They find their ‘genius spaces’ and give them all they have.

For Steven, it’s the youth skills gap. He is the Co-founder of ProjectileX – a youth business education non-profit organization focused on closing the youth skills gap and empowering young entrepreneurs – a Fellow at the Stanford Designership Institute, and a Member of the Youth Skills and Innovation Council at the Global Business Coalition for Education.

I sat down with Steven to learn more about the past two years of his work and to learn more about the youth skills gap. I’ve found it’s something that isn’t talked about enough, but Steven and his team at ProjectileX are leading the charge not just for awareness, but for change.

HHS: When did you first become aware of the youth skills gap and its negative impact?

SL: I have been working on growing ProjectileX, a youth business education non-profit I Co-founded, since 2016. Originally, our focus was on empowering young entrepreneurs, but we quickly noticed that although many of our students were interested in business and technology. We didn’t want to silo them and make them feel mandated to solely pursue a career in startups in the future. So, we wanted to look at what other issues youth faced besides being underrepresented in the business community. I’d say we became aware of the skills gap in mid-2017, but didn’t really do anything actionable until 2018. My Co-founder and I were invited to join the Global Business Coalition for Education’s newly-formed Youth Skills and Innovation Council sometime in early 2018 and that’s when we doubled down on tackling this issue.

HHS: I am definitely interested in awareness, because ‘youth skills gap’ isn’t yet a buzzword. I never heard about it before talking with you! So, tell us about it.

SL: The numbers are astounding. The Education Commission finds that 385 million youth are at risk of not having the skills necessary to find a job by 2030. The British Chamber of Commerce finds that some 69% of employers don’t believe that schools prepare students well enough for the workforce. The MacArthur Foundation reports that 65% of our youth will be filling jobs that don’t exist today. Clearly, there is a gap between what our students are learning in schools today (what we like to term “status quo learning”) and what’s expected of them in their future careers. The gap encompasses both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, which causes problems in both character and career development.

HHS: And, how is the gap harming the Next Gen(eration)?

SL: Our youth are going through what professionals call “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.” Youth aren’t developing skills that are relevant to their future careers (not through school directly for the most part, at least). By extension, the newer generations like Gen Z are shown to be more creative and have further tendencies to start their own companies, but too much of it does not extend beyond a business plan. Why? Because they lack the skills (mainly hard skills like programming) to actually prototype and make a product that makes it to the market. If the skills gap furthers, it’s inevitable that fewer innovations will happen going forward and youth are going to be unemployed or underemployed; this will be incredibly detrimental to the future of work and our economy at large.

HHS: That terrifies me, especially because one of my our driving passions at Next Gen is to provide youth the resources they need to drive their own innovations forward. So, what do we do? How do we close the gap?

SL: A combination of multiple solutions. Project-based learning (PBL) should be integrated into our schools so students have practical hands-on experience tackling real-world problems while developing skills that are relevant to solving the problems that matter most to them. Vocational training is also pivotal in closing the skills gap; Switzerland does this well and implements it heavily, while the U.S. hardly implements such programming at all. We need to find a balance here. Career Technical Education (CTE), which is a term coined via the Perkins Act of 2006, is also important; students should be developing both technical and soft skills that are integral to career success in parallel to their traditional schooling. Additionally, we need to start implementing educational programs that allow students to develop as characters in addition to their scholarly work; in the business world today we see a ton of issues with respect to ethics (e.g. Uber, Theranos, etc.) and before we teach our students to consider academic pursuits or starting companies, they need to know what it means to be a good person. Status quo education is often scores-driven and has KPIs that impose cutthroat environments for students to learn in, so naturally, students are now 40% less empathetic than they were 10 years ago. So in short, we need to combine solutions that teach our students both soft and hard skills, and do so through practice rather than mere theory.

What stood out most to me in my conversation with Steven was the sheer amount of research he’s done. Not only does he deeply understand the problem(s), but he contemplates a number of research-based solutions. This is key. He’s incorporated research and this perspective into his work and made it his life mission to educate others about the gap – and to see it closed.

In other words, Steven certainly isn’t ‘status quo’ like our scores-driven education system may be. He’s putting theory into practice, and forging the way for the Next Gen(eration) to acquire the soft and hard skills necessary for realizing and fulfilling their own genius spaces.

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