■ About the research in the SKY project
－Please tell us how you got involved in the SKY project.
The project leader, Prof. Yamada was my supervisor when I was writing my Ph.D. dissertation and I joined the project through such a relationship. Regarding the project content, I thought the approach to ‘human ability’ was interesting.
In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion in the field of educational development that a person’s abilities cannot be captured only by their levels of educational credentials and academic performance at school. Various concepts have emerged, such as ‘noncognitive skills’ and ‘competence’, to the extent that the concepts on competencies are in flood. But there is not much concrete understanding of how skills contribute to the performances in specific occupations and work situations, and particularly research on developing countries is limited.
The SKY project has developed a unique skills assessment module, consisting of tests and questionnaires. This module prepares multidimensional datasets of workers’ and students’ skills and allows for anatomic analysis of skills, which specifies the relationship between certain skill and certain outcome and the ways different types of skills support each other for a person to be good in something.
－What are the characteristics of vocational education in developing countries?
As we know from our experiences, educational credentials often serve as an indirect signal of a person’s ability, rather than actual skills, when trying to get a job in the labor market.
The expectations of gaining better opportunities for employment with higher levels of school certificates tend to be met in developed countries because of the mature labor market, while in developing countries, where there are not enough white-collar jobs, ‘youth unemployment’ due to the inflation of the value of educational certificates is serious. Against this background, attention to vocational training, which is directly linked to work, is increasing.
Another feature of vocational preparation in developing countries is the large room for informal channels for skills development, such as apprenticeship (see also the interview with Dr. Yamazaki).
The apprenticeship system, in which an apprentice participates in a workshop led by a master and acquires skills while working, can be regarded as a place for ‘informal’ skills building, as opposed to school education as a formal system.
－What does ‘informal’ mean in this context?
It is an area that is not well institutionalized. The term ‘informal sector’ in economic activity refers to microeconomic activities by entities that are not registered by the government and thus don’t appear in statistics of national economies.
In the past, the informal sector was regarded as a problem, for it is sustained by the low-skilled workforce with insecure income. But in African society, it functions as an important site of job creation and skill building.
Our research also shed light on cases of people choosing careers in a patchwork manner: ‘after honing their skills as apprentices, they obtain a formal diploma from a vocational school, work in a factory to expand their network with customers and craftsmen, and start their own business in the informal sector’. Such models of career development reveal the realities of people’s activities as they learn and work both inside and outside of formal institutions.
－As a study, how do you approach aspects other than educational credentials and academic performance?
Noncognitive skills, which are also the focus of the SKY project, are one aspect of approaching the issues of knowledge formation without relying on school data. Non-cognitive skills are the concept made famous by the Nobel laureate economist, Dr. James J. Heckman, used in his paper and refer to personal traits and social relationship skills. However, as the name ‘non-‘ suggests, it refers to all abilities other than cognitive abilities such as educational background and academic ability, so the conceptual definition is ambiguous, and if you try to understand it head-on, you are likely to get bogged down (Noncognitive skills are also discussed in Chapter 2 of ‘Industrial Human Resource Development in Developing Countries Knowledge and Skills in the Age of the SDGs’, the book published based on the research of SKY project).
－How does the SKY project perceive of noncognitive skills?
Educational economics, including Heckman’s paper mentioned earlier, tends to conceptualize noncognitive skills as universal attributes of personalities (such as “perseverance”) that ‘contribute to economic success.’
On the other hand, in the SKY project, we believe that the abilities which are evaluated positively differ according to the specific context. For example, a person who will receive high wages in formal companies may have different types of noncognitive skills than a successful self-employed person in the informal sector. Therefore, we consider it necessary to look specifically at the contents and context of competencies, and their relationships with outcomes.
In terms of “how to train,” many existing methods seem to take the approach of teaching “what problem-solving skills are” or “what communication skills are” in a form of lectures. This is teaching something non-cognitive cognitively, and it is doubtful that it will be established on a practical level. At SKY, we are working on developing new training approaches that are different from the lecture format, and we hope you will look forward to our future activities.
■ Developing and Developed countries
－Have you been involved in Africa for a long time？
I have been doing research in Ghana since I was a student.
My doctoral dissertation investigated the life stories of participants in the ‘revolutionary’ movements of the 1980s during the Cold War.
Before ‘the Revolution’, rural communities were hierarchical and traditional, with chiefs and elders at the top, and young people had little voice. But when schooling began to spread in rural areas in the 1970s, young people gathered together or went to school outside the village, and new ideas and values emerged that were different from those of adults. Young people began to organize themselves in their communities, holding meetings, and building roads and communal farmland, but often faced opposition from their elders, which prevented them from carrying out their activities.
It was under this context that ‘the Revolution’ took place. As the Revolution was oriented toward youth solidarity and social change, young people saw this as an opportunity and sought to gain a tailwind for their activities by connecting with the Revolution. As a result, the movement spread to rural areas far from the capital.
The life story method which I used was appealing because it allowed me to see the relationship between the microscopic dimension of individual consciousness and the macroscopic objective phenomenon sterically by grasping things from the perspective of the person concerned.
－How have the values of young people changed?
I think the starting point was that by being exposed to the world outside the community, the traditional values that had been internalized by young people was relativized and they started to perceive that there were ‘different realities’.
Moving back and forth between different values, and experiencing ‘not being included in either here or there’, leads to increasing the possibility of making choices about ‘how I want to be’.
Even in developing countries today, there are complex realities with traditional communities, rapid expansion of capitalism, ICTs, and globalization. Individuals cross these different contexts and exist on the pluralism of being both “this” and “that”.
Research and policies inevitably tend to cut out specific categories out of complexities, but as we have discussed in the example of the informal sector, each individual lives within and outside of certain institutions and categories. I believe that we need to pay attention to such backgrounds and the dynamics created by cross-border exchanges, especially in today’s increasingly complex world due to globalization and information technology.
In my Ph.D. dissertation, I used the qualitative research method of life story, but in the future, I would like to explore how quantitative research methods can be used to capture processes and longitudinal transitions better.
－Is such a situation limited to developing countries?
I believe that through examining the way of life of people in developing countries, we can see themes that are also important for those of us living in developed countries. For example, the value of educational credentials in the labor market may become limited in the future, and more often than not, even if a person has authoritative certificates in one area, s/he may not be valued in another.
Due to the advancement of digitalization and other factors, informal activities outside the formal framework of social security systems may expand, not only in developing countries but also in developed countries.
The destabilization of institutionalized and stable domains is a factor to raise uneasiness for those of us living in developed societies, but people in developing countries, who are familiar with informal activities in the first place, seem to adapt more quickly to the change.
We need to continue to work towards solving poverty and other developmental challenges, and at the same time, I believe that there are insights we can gain from the way people in developing countries use their various experiences and networks to find a wide range of opportunities.
■ About the SKY project
－What kind of project is the SKY for you?
I think the project allows members to pursue their interests freely. I appreciate the generous stance of the project, which takes a long-term view of those who want to do something and allows them to acquire the necessary skills as they move on.
I had no experience in statistical analysis before joining the SKY project. I am participating in the project while learning many things, such as methods to present and report at conferences, technical knowledge, and literature reviews.
－What do you want to do in the future?
I would like to produce results that can disseminate initiatives of the SKY project.
Personally, I would like to conduct research that will enable us to think about our own way of life and values from a new perspective through analyzing the activities of people in developing countries. Rather than ‘support’, I would like to take the stance of ‘thinking together about how to live in today’s highly uncertain society’.
My interests tend to stray from ‘education’ and ‘Africa’, but I would like to take advantage of my occupation as a researcher as a means to get involved in all sorts of things while studying.