Life skills training
The research suggests that life skills training is likely to have a low positive impact on youth employment outcomes, as a component of a youth employment intervention.
What is it?
Life skills training aims to develop young people’s interpersonal and psychosocial skills. Programme content varies, but interventions often seek to build skills such as team-working, self-organisation, critical thinking and communication. Life skills training may be delivered through diverse activities, such as classroom instruction, role play, and/or discussions of scenarios. It can be delivered to young people individually or in groups, and in person or online; it can be provided as a ‘standalone’ intervention or incorporated into other interventions such as mentoring. ’Life skills’ may also be called ‘soft skills’ or ‘non-cognitive skills’.
In the research for the Toolkit, ‘life skills’ training includes interventions that are designed to help young people learn about communication, relationships with other people, team-working, problem-solving, self-regulation and self-management, and other abilities that support personal and workplace success. Life skills training may also help young people to develop their confidence and emotional intelligence. The focus and content of programmes usually depends on their specific context.
Life skills training is distinguished from other forms of skills training including:
- Basic skills training, where the main focus is on developing literacy, numeracy, and/or digital skills. This is the subject of a separate section of the Youth Employment Toolkit.
- On-the-job training and off-the-job training, which aim to develop skills for specific jobs and sectors (vocational skills). These are the subject of two separate sections of the Youth Employment Toolkit.
- Programmes that focus solely on the development of personal skills unrelated to work, such as self-care or money management, or skills such as cooking or driving a car.
Many services supporting young people towards employment opportunities offer life skills training. The intervention is often delivered by third sector organisations such as youth organisations, as well as local and central government departments. Interventions are delivered in colleges, schools, and educational settings. Life skills training can both support young people to get a job and improve their performance at work, and help them to manage their lives outside work in a variety of ways.
The cost rating for life skills training is low.
- Number of inputs: Limited.
- Duration of inputs: Most life skills training lasts a few weeks, or occupies a small number of hours within a larger programme.
- Sources of inputs: Limited.
- Expertise: Some elements may need specialist planning but most training can fall within the general knowledge of staff who work regularly with young people or current employees.
- Settings: Life skills training does not require specialist settings.
- Intervention-only inputs: Can largely be integrated with other aspects of a programme or within work experience and training.
The research suggests that life skills training is likely to have a low positive
impact on youth employment outcomes, as a component of a youth employment intervention.
The research suggests that, on average, life skills training could improve youth employment outcomes by around 5% compared to ‘services as usual’. That means for every 44 young people who can take part in a programme, one will get a job who wouldn’t have done so without the intervention.
The confidence interval identified for this estimate means that the improvement could vary between a small fall in employment and about 12, depending on a range of factors including how the intervention is implemented.
The impact rating does not reflect the impact of life skills training on any other outcomes for young people. Life skills training is associated with a range of benefits for young people and studies show that it is likely to be effective in developing the skills and abilities that are its primary focus. Behavioural and interpersonal skills are important in occupations at all levels.
About the evidence
You can find details of individual studies of evaluations that include on-the-job training, as well as other systematic reviews of youth employment evaluations, in the Youth Employment Evidence and Gap Map.
The strength of the evidence for the impact of life skills training on youth employment compared to services as usual is moderate.
The network meta-analysis of evaluation findings for the Youth Employment Toolkit includes 20 evaluations of youth employment programmes including life skills training that are compared with ‘services as usual’ for young people, in high-income countries. Eighteen of these were conducted in the USA. The international nature of the evidence means that the findings may not translate directly to the UK context.
An assessment using the Campbell Secretariat’s Critical Appraisal Tool suggests low to moderate confidence overall in this effect size. The overall rating is moderate because of the relatively high number of studies.
This research highlights the need for further impact evaluations examining the relationship between the provision of life skills training and youth employment outcomes in the UK. In particular, we need to know more about the most effective approaches for helping young people who are at risk of marginalisation to develop these skills.
Overall, evidence on the impact of ‘standalone’ life skills interventions on youth employment outcomes in high income countries is limited. Life skills training is most frequently delivered alongside other youth employment interventions. It is also a part of many programmes in which getting a job is only one of a range of goals for young people. For example, programme aims may include reducing involvement in crime or violence, building engagement in learning, personal and social development, independent living, etc.
Some systematic reviews suggest that life skills training has a small but significant impact on employment outcomes for young people in low- and middle-income countries (where the intervention is more frequently evaluated). These studies also show that life skills training is effective in improving life skills and other social outcomes. For example:
- A systematic review of evaluations of life skills training interventions for women’s empowerment in developing countries found a small positive impact on employment outcomes, as well as other positive economic and social effects.
- A systematic review of interventions to support adults with physical and/or sensory disabilities in low- and middle-income countries, many of which included life-skills elements, found a positive impact on employment outcomes, as well as on incomes and on professional social skills.
Some process evaluations indicate that life skills programmes are successful in improving the interpersonal and non-cognitive skills that are the focus of this training. These include confidence, resilience, personal organisation and self-management, team-working, relationship building, communication, and social and emotional intelligence, as well as commitment and organisational skills.
How does it work?
Life skills training aims to develop young people’s interpersonal and psychosocial skills to improve and expand their employment opportunities. The development of skills such as team-working, self-organisation, critical thinking and communication can support young people to get on better in the workplace, collaborate with other people, follow instructions, and communicate more clearly. It can also improve various aspects of self-management, such as timekeeping.
Life skills can directly help young people gain employment through support with activities such as CV preparation and interview technique. It can help them indirectly by building confidence and inter-personal skills for networking, applications and interviews.
How to implement it well
The following summary draws on information about the programmes that are evaluated in the studies included in the network meta-analysis of evaluation findings. This includes descriptions and discussion of the programmes in the quantitative reports, as well as in some cases accompanying process evaluations. It also uses findings from process and implementation studies in the Youth Futures Evidence and Gap Map, and a review by the IES for Youth Futures.
Please note that these summaries reflect qualitative findings rather than the comparison group analysis used in the evaluations that are included in the meta-analysis.
Programmes that match the needs of the young people recruited
Programmes often tailor content and approach to the needs of the young people involved. This may involve a needs assessment at recruitment or orientation. For young people who face additional social, personal, and psychological barriers, such tailoring may be more complex. To recruit these young people, stakeholders need effective ways to identify and work with individuals who can benefit. This includes engaging and proactive outreach, for example opportunities to take part in sports, arts, community or social activities. Financial incentives can also help to attract and retain young people.
Integrating workplace skills into specific vocational training
Some programmes integrate interpersonal skills development into sector- or role-specific vocational training. This could include:
- Group and project-based work, and/or a focus on practical problem-solving that is related to on-the-job or off-the-job training.
- Classes on workplace behaviours and expectations, interpersonal skills, and professional communication and relationships alongside on-the-job or off-the-job training.
- Vocational learning programmes that ‘model’ workplace culture and expectations, for example in how staff and learners interact, in the presentation of materials, assignments, etc.
Activities that enhance confidence at work and in using skills are often highly valued. Self-awareness, receptiveness, ‘drive’, resilience and good information about the world of work may also be appreciated by participants.
Specialist content packages that match programme aims
Several descriptions of programmes that were included in the REA include examples of specialist content packages that have been developed by organisations with relevant expertise, often using research evidence and evaluation. Where an intervention uses a curriculum of this kind, a close match with the overall programme aims and suitability for a specific cohort of young people is sought. Examples from the studies in the network meta-analysis include:
- The ‘Preparing Adolescents for Young Adulthood’ programme developed by the Massachusetts Department for Social Services as an evidence-based tool for life skills development.
- The USA National Institute of Corrections ‘Thinking for a Change’ programme, which aims to change thinking patterns that are associated with criminal behaviour and promote social and emotional learning.
A focus on learner engagement
Programmes for young people who face complex social and psychological barriers, such as involvement with the criminal justice system, may encounter challenges with attendance and engagement. Responses include:
- Offering incentives for attendance, and addressing access issues such as transport costs, timing of programmes, etc.
- Activities to build cohort cohesion and trust in instructors.
- Learning about the specific challenges that affect attendance, and making specific responses to these.
- Individualised life skills provision for young people with very complex needs.
Online delivery may be of limited use in improving participation and engagement. It depends on young people having sufficient technological skills, and access to sufficient IT resources, to take part.
Specialist staff for young people who face additional barriers
Organisations that provide skills training to young people who face additional social and psychological barriers to employment may seek out expert staff to deliver this, for example tutors with professional experience and/or training to deliver a specialised programme. For example, one US intervention employed graduates with a social work credential and experience of working with adolescents. They received bespoke training and shadowed other outreach workers before taking on their own caseloads. The programme as a whole is ‘relationship based’ and trusting relationships between workers and participants are key. This is reinforced with regular meetings over at least an extended period.
Summary of evidence
- Findings from an analysis of data on programmes that include a ‘life skills training’ component suggest that this has a low but positive impact on youth employment outcomes.
- This is consistent with other studies, which identify a small but positive relationship between life skills attainment and the likelihood of having a job, as well as other outcomes related to employment such as higher wages and better professional social skills.
- The strength of the evidence for the impact of life skills training on youth employment outcomes is moderate.