Interview with Dr. Luis Benveniste

October 28, 2023

“Education is essential to finding the solutions and promoting innovation necessary to address the problems of our time.”

Interview with Dr. Luis Benveniste, Global Director for Education at the World Bank, Washington D.C.


Education institutions and training providers must keep programs closely aligned with job market demand if they want to help people find work and societies solve problems, says Dr. Luis Benveniste, Global Director for Education at the World Bank. In an interview with IFC, Dr. Benveniste explains how the private sector can elevate the quality of technical and vocational education training programs to deliver lifelong learning opportunities with the public sector. He also talks about addressing social norms that limit women from careers in tech and offers higher education leaders three pieces of advice to prepare students for the digital and green economies.

What are the World Bank’s priorities concerning the education agenda?

The Bank’s focus has been on foundational learning and bringing people’s attention to the fact that more than half of children across the developing world cannot read with comprehension a simple text by the age of 10. It can be as high as almost 9 out of 10 children in places like Sub-Saharan Africa. Building fundamental skills is at the core of our mandate because of the intrinsic value of education and because it’s a stepping stone to the acquisition of a variety of skills for life.

Without strong foundations, realizing a child’s potential gets much harder. People with strong foundational skills can reinvent themselves over the course of their lifetime, which is becoming more and more important given that the nature of jobs is quickly evolving. Jobs today also require more technical and deeper, higher-order skills.

How can the private sector provide solutions to support public sector efforts to improve post-secondary education?

We have private providers across the education spectrum, from early childhood to higher education, that play a crucial role in satisfying people’s education and training needs. For instance, public technical vocational training programs can be underfunded. Private providers tend to be finely attuned to the skills needed in the labor market and can nurture close partnerships with leading industry firms. They also often have access to cutting-edge industry equipment and technology innovations, like virtual and augmented reality training programs, which are valuable to gain practical skills. These provisions elevate the quality of technical and vocational education training programs, which boost performance and retention and ultimately help graduates find gainful employment. The private sector is an integral part of the education ecosystem.

The digital age has generated new categories of jobs that didn't exist even 10 years ago. How can we help young people in developing countries acquire the skills needed to take advantage of these new job opportunities?

The first thing we can do is to ensure equitable access to broadband and technology. Digital infrastructure can be a great enabler, but even when there is access to technology, digital skills can be a significant constraint to reaping the benefits of technology.

Students need to develop a complete digital mindset as well as essential skills to harness technology. Understanding the changing digital ecosystem and learning how to thrive in it can be as important as developing instrumental skills. Hence, schools, more than ever, could play a key role in helping them decode and understand the digital world as well as to master these skills. This often means that school leaders and teachers need to keep learning and exploring these ever-changing skills to harness digital technologies, both in the classroom to support students better and outside of the classroom to learn how to navigate this changing world.

We know that technological advances are also driving demand for reskilling and upskilling. How can universities and workforce training providers help employees keep up with the rate of change?

Education institutions and training providers cannot operate in a bubble—they cannot impart a specific curriculum or program without understanding where the demand for skills comes from. It is critical to closely align reskilling and upskilling programs with job market demand.

The private sector has an important role to play in on-the-job training and cooperating with technical training institutions to hone the types of skills that jobs require. This is where private-public partnerships are especially valuable, as they can deliver lifelong learning opportunities so that people can keep up with the change and growth that our society demands.

How are women being impacted by the digital skills gap?

Women are more vulnerable to the digital skills gap. Research has shown that approximately 327 million fewer women than men have smartphones and access to mobile internet. Women are not equally represented in science, technology, engineering, and math fields, and far fewer women pursue tech careers than men.

We need to ensure that both men and women can equally take advantage of the opportunities that technology provides. Digital jobs are oftentimes good, profitable jobs. Women should be able to take advantage of such opportunities and not be left behind.  We need to address social norms that can constrain women from having access to training and economic opportunities associated with careers in technology. Digital innovations have also introduced greater flexibility in labor market conditions that could promote gender equity and provide women with rewarding opportunities to engage in paid work.

How can education impact climate change?

In so many ways!  Education can play a role in growing awareness of the impact of climate change and raising environmentally conscious people. There is compelling evidence that exposure to more hot days significantly impedes student learning. Other extreme weather events also significantly disrupt learning through school closures. In 2022, Mozambique saw over 800 schools destroyed due to Storm Ana, and the monsoon in Pakistan disrupted schooling for 3.5 million. As climate change increases the frequency of extreme weather events, more frequent school closures will result in learning losses.

Worldwide, education is the single strongest predictor of climate change awareness. A year of education increases pro-climate beliefs, behaviors, and green voting. Studies show that climate education for children also increases climate concerns among parents.

But we need to strengthen climate education in schools. Our World Bank education programs increasingly include components on strengthening climate education.

Youth also demand skills to support their countries and communities toward a green transition. Green transitions could bring nearly 25 million jobs, but only if workers are adequately skilled. In many countries, demand for green skills is outpacing supply. And green skills are being demanded across all sectors. In many ways, any job can become greener.

Research from Brazil and the Philippines shows that interpersonal skills, soft skills, and certain digital skills are in greater demand in green jobs compared to other jobs. World Bank analytics and operations showcase how precisely to re-think education systems¾including tertiary education¾to foster skilling for green transitions and meaningful behavioral changes to promote climate-attuned people.

Education is essential to finding the solutions and promoting innovation necessary to address the problems of our time. This includes finding alternatives to fossil fuels or ways to decrease our carbon footprint.

What three pieces of advice would you give higher and tertiary education leaders to improve students' digital skills and skills required for the green economy?

Number one, embrace change. Education leaders need to keep their fingers on the pulse of the job market to understand what skills employers are looking for and ensure their schools and programs are designed to meet those needs. Curricula should not be set in stone. This means conducting periodic curricula reviews and adapting by offering training opportunities with private sector providers or bringing in specialists to impart both critical and foundational skills.

Second, look beyond the walls of the educational institution. It is also essential to keep track of students once they leave an institution to find out how the skills they learned were applied, what their career trajectories look like, and how training opportunities are put to work and in what ways they provide or not provide a return on investment.

Lastly, go beyond those who think alike. I would advise administrators to build relationships with leaders, thinkers, and doers at other institutions. Growing networks of professionals and collaborating with them nurture new emerging approaches that may better serve students.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Published in October 2023

Dr. Luis Benveniste is the Global Director for Education at the World Bank. His research interests focus on education financing, teacher policies, and student assessment practices. In his prior role, he was the Human Development Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. He was a co-author of the World Development Report 2012: Gender Equality and Development.

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