Youth unemployment is increasingly recognised as one of the most serious intergenerational socio-economic challenges of the twenty-first century. In some regions of the world, young people are nearly three times as likely as adults to be unemployed. They are also more likely than adults to work in the informal labour market, in low-quality jobs which offer limited financial security, training opportunities, and working conditions. To address this challenge, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is back on the development agenda after years of neglect. There is growing international interest in its potential to reduce skills deficits and equip youth with the abilities to take advantage of work opportunities. This is the first comprehensive systematic review to have examined the evidence base for TVET in developing countries.
The main objective of this systematic review was to assess and synthesise the evidence from studies evaluating the impacts of TVET interventions for young people in developing countries. The following questions guided this study:
- What are the effects of different models of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) interventions on the employment and employability outcomes of young people, aged 15-24 years, in low- and middle-income countries?
- What do the findings suggest about moderating effects?
To identify relevant studies, the authors applied the following eligibility criteria: studies had to be conducted in LMICs, had to have been reported between 2000 and 2011, and had to evaluate the impact of a TVET intervention and investigate outcomes for youth, including at least one quantifiable measure of employment or employability, and using an experimental or rigorous quasi-experimental design. Single-group pre'post test studies were not included. No language or publication-status restrictions were applied. A comprehensive and diverse search strategy was used to locate eligible published and unpublished studies. Ten major bibliographic databases were searched (including ASSIA, Econlit, ERIC, IBSS, Medline, PsycINFO, and SSCI), along with 45 specialist library catalogues, databases, and websites. The authors also checked the reference lists of previous reviews and included studies, used electronic search methods to forward-track included studies, and requested information about additional relevant studies from experts in the field.
They extracted data from all included studies, and to quality-assess studies they used a tool developed by researchers at the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation (3ie) for assessing risk of bias in experimental and quasi-experimental designs, based on statistical methods. Data were independently extracted by pairs of reviewers. Finally, the authors synthesised the evidence from ten studies for which effect sizes could be calculated using random-effects inverse-variance weighted meta-analytic methods. They analysed the included studies by outcome and reported standardised mean difference (Hedges' g) effect sizes. Heterogeneity of included studies was assessed, and the authors used an analogue to the ANOVA analysis (univariate) approach to examine potential variability in effects due to study, participant, and intervention characteristics. Sixteen studies were not suitable for meta-analysis, and the authors analyse the findings of these studies in a narrative format, including applying elements of vote counting.
Headline Findings: a summary statement
Overall, interventions included in this review demonstrated a small, positive effect on all but one of the employment-related outcomes measured. The evidence for formal employment and monthly earnings was stronger than for the other outcomes measured. Furthermore, TVET appears to increase the number of hours worked in paid employment by young women, but not by young men.
The authors included a total of 26 studies assessing the effectiveness of 20 different TVET interventions from various countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, Europe, East Asia, South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, including ten upper-middle-income countries, two lower-middle-income countries, and one low-income country.
Implications for policy and practice
The overall mean effect of TVET on paid employment (g=0.06; 95% CI [-0.01, 0.12]) and formal employment (g=0.12; 95% CI [0.05, 0.19]) was positive and significant, albeit with significant heterogeneity in findings by context. The overall mean effect of TVET on self-employment earnings was negative and not significant (g=-0.025, 95% CI [-0.11, 0.061]). The analysis for these findings is based on medium-quality studies.
The overall mean effect of TVET on earnings was positive and significant (g=0.127; 95% CI [0.043, 0.21]); again, however, significant heterogeneity by contexts was observed. The overall mean effect of TVET on number of weekly hours worked was positive but non-significant (g=0.043; 95% CI [-0.017, 0.104]).
Effects on weekly hours worked for female youth were positive(g=0.16 (95% CI [0.04, 0.28]), while those for male youth were negative and non-significant (g=-0.09 (95% CI [-0.2, 0.01]).
The authors conclude that, although this review provides some evidence of a positive impact of TVET on certain labour-market outcomes, several limitations of both the included studies and the review itself mean that drawing strong inferences from the results of the analyses is not recommended. Studies were unable to provide evidence to test whether employment effects of TVET were additional, or simply displaced existing untrained workers. Caution should be used when applying the findings of the review.
Due to an insufficient number of studies reporting relevant data, only some of the analyses that had been planned to explore heterogeneity by context could be performed. The authors indicate that it would be premature to conclude, however, that there are not in fact real differences between young men and women for other labour-market outcomes, or between different types of TVET intervention, or that effects do not diminish over time.
As the existing evidence shows that TVET interventions are promising to some extent, it is important and worthwhile to continue to invest in TVET provision for youth in developing countries. The authors recommend rigorous evaluation of future TVET programmes, building the evidence base further by rigorous evaluations of many more of the TVET interventions currently in existence in developing countries; and they recommend that the results reported should be disseminated efficiently.
Finally, the authors indicate that a narrative analysis of the 16 studies not included in the meta-analyses suggests that these studies generally support the findings from the meta-analyses.
Implications for further research
The authors conclude that further rigorous research on TVET is required. Methodological inconsistencies and weaknesses of the current evidence base, and specific knowledge gaps, suggest a number of future research priorities. These include: (a) evaluating all types of TVET; (b) testing the effects of different intervention components, and analysing all other relevant variables that may influence the effect; (c) measuring all key intermediate outcomes, long-term outcomes, and net outcomes (i.e. whether employment is additional or displacing); (d) improving reporting (e.g., providing more detailed descriptions of interventions and outcome measures, and supplying the data needed to calculate effect sizes and the information needed for risk-of-bias judgments and study replication); and (e) evaluating the application of quasi-experimental techniques.
The authors use appropriate methods to reduce bias through a relatively comprehensive search strategy, appropriate screening and risk of bias assessment, appropriate methods of data analysis and clear reporting on the characteristics of included studies and the methods used in the review. The review has the following minor limitations: the authors only included literature from 2000 onwards and excluded some eligible studies in Spanish due to lack of resources for their translation. There is no mention of whether the authors addressed unit of analysis issues. However, the authors acknowledge some of the review's limitations and do not draw strong policy conclusions.