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Understanding out-of-school youth

Understanding out-of-school youth (#1 in youth employability series)

Updated: Nov 28, 2019

Youth are the future of society - as well as one of its biggest mysteries. Older generations often complain about not being able to understand young people today. Yet this does not hinder them from wanting to help where they see issues. Employability for out-of-school youth is increasingly an area of focus for impact-oriented organisations looking to make a meaningful difference in individual lives as well as in the society of tomorrow.

Just Cause has been working with social purpose organisations, funders, and employers to understand how to design interventions to empower out-of-school youths with the skills to secure and sustain employment. In this blog series, we will be sharing key insights gleaned from our work to build a common, accessible body of knowledge amongst practitioners in this space.


To kick off this series, we focus on the first step - understanding the youth themselves.


Interested in working with us on youth employability? Get in touch here.

Who are out-of-school youth?


Out-of-school youth are those aged between 15-25 who are not in education, having either dropped out of a school program or elected not to pursue the next level of study (e.g. post-secondary). While there are diverse reasons why one might quit school, our research pinpointed 5 predominant reasons, or “archetypes” of out-of-school youth:


  • “I chose the wrong course”: those who are not interested in their current course, having been unable to qualify for preferred course or unsure of what they wanted at point of choosing.

  • “I failed my milestone exams”: those who did not pass critical points in their education journey, e.g. PSLE, O/N-levels, NITEC.

  • “I need to support my family”: those in families lacking a breadwinning figure at home due to illness, divorce, incarceration, etc.

  • “I’m not interested in school”: those who have lost interest in education due to negative peer influence, consistent poor academic performance, bullying, addiction to games, etc.

  • “I was suspended/expelled”: those who have left school due to offending, conduct issues, teenage pregnancy, etc.

These reasons typically influence which path youth take after leaving school. We identified 3 main pathways – enrolling in private education, part-time employment, and idling at home – of which the most common appeared to be part-time “odd job” employment. This raises the issue of how to work with those who have dropped out of school to build the skills to secure and sustain meaningful employment – in other words, employability.


What do out-of-school youth need and want? What are their strengths?


A clear and consistent message we heard was: Youth do not lack employment opportunities. Rather, the issue is that they have not yet fully developed the internal assets and life skills needed for the workplace. Successful employability programs therefore hinge simultaneously on successfully building these assets and skills, whilst being able to effectively attract and engage those who do not yet possess them.


To understand how to do so, it’s critical to take the youths’ perspective – to understand how programs might meet their needs and wants, as well as tap on their strengths.



  • What youth need: Displaced from the education system and often facing adverse home circumstances, out-of-school youth need a nurturing environment to develop competencies and mental resilience to transition into the workplace. Self-confidence is crucial, which sufficient care, support, and a sense of belonging can build. One school leader told us: “The number 1 key success factor for work attachments is a nurturing supervisor - someone who really cares for and connects with our kids.”

  • What youth want: Conscious wants can be quite different from actual needs. In seeking employment, many youths are driven by instant gratification and aversion to long-term planning, prioritising short term gains and a sense of achievement. Many also face problems with structure and need flexible arrangements, particularly in the beginning. Food delivery jobs, for instance, are often preferred due to flexible hours and pay-per-hour schemes.

  • What youth are strong at: Creativity and loyalty are two areas where they can often shine. We heard many tales of young trainees excelling in creative, non-regimental vocations, such as arts, sports, digital media, and adventure. Likewise, once trust is established, strong loyalty often follows – “once they love you, they will listen to you and join your programmes,'' says a social worker.

Next in this series: We talk about what are the key factors that help youth employability programmes to succeed.

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