A new scorecard reveals the shocking statistic as a major forum in India addresses the crisis and seeks to come up with solutions.
The causes may vary from one region or country to another. But the bottom line is the same - young people across South Asia face an uphill struggle to fulfil their potential.
Ten years from now, more than half of them (54%) will leave school without the skills needed to succeed in the future workforce.
That shocking statistic comes from new research by the Global Business Coalition for Education (GBC-Education) and the Education Commission that shows youth skills in the region - which includes India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka - are lagging well below the global average.
The 2030 Skills Scorecard South Asia edition was launched today at a major forum in India which is co-hosted by GBC-Education. It shows that only 26% of secondary-age children in the region are on track right now to complete school and learn the basic skills needed for employment - rising to just 46% by the year 2030.
Many young people in South Asia feel their education systems are outdated and do not adequately prepare them for employment. They cite lack of work experience and support services as being part of the problem.
"Institutions which provide skill training in my area are situated in cities," said youth activist Vivek Gurav from India. "They are centralised away from the areas where they are actually needed.
"It's almost impossible for young people to afford the costs and they have much less support to relocate to big cities and gain the required skills."
The forum aims to examine the alarming situation and advance the development of youth skills partnerships between the private sector, governments and international agencies. It will build on the work of GBC-Education’s Youth Skills and Innovation Initiative, which was launched two years ago, and UNICEF's Generation Unlimited initiative.
Importantly, it will engage young people from across South Asia in meaningful interaction, action-focused meetings and sessions linking education, employability and skills.
“This is a crisis," said Justin van Fleet, Executive Director of the Global Business Coalition for Education and President of Theirworld. He is presenting the findings of the 2030 scorecard at the forum.
"Addressing the youth skills gap in South Asia requires government investments, commitments from the business community, contributions from civil society and the perspective of young people to best equip the next generation to successfully enter the rapidly-changing job market.”
While progress has been made in South Asia, the region is still home to 28 million out-of-school-children – 10 million at primary level and 18 million at lower secondary level. Almost half of primary-aged children are not learning the basics of reading and math.
The Mumbai youth skills forum is co-hosted by GBC-Education, UNICEF's Regional Office for South Asia and Generation Unlimited. UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said: “In my travels, I’ve heard the voices of young people - their ideas, their enthusiasm, their vision for the future.
"I’ve also heard their worries about not getting the education or skills they need and not being able to find a job.”
Urgent action is needed because the workplace of the future will look very different from today. The breakneck pace of technological change and work requirements means many young people in South Asia - where almost half of the population are under 24 and nearly 100,000 enter the labour market every day - are not receiving the learning and training needed to keep pace.
"Another reason is they are not even aware of which skills actually matter and can help them to be employable in future," said Vivek, who is the founder of Visionary Fighters, a volunteers' community working to improve the welfare of youth.
"Awareness of relevant skills and availability of jobs paying minimum required wages is a big issue in the area I come from.
"I would love world leaders and the youth skills forum to pledge support for the promotion of relevant skills and investment in sustainable and accessible institutions."
Madhu Chauhan, a Global Youth Ambassador from India, is also at the forum. Through her work as a systems engineer, she teaches personality development skills and English language in schools in her local village.
Madhu said: "There is a huge unbridged gap between the teaching standards and industry demands. Along with not enough exposure to exploring out-of-the-box skillsets.
"Everyone, no matter who they are, deserves employment to be self-dependent and to take their own decisions - and deserves it without any bias."
The future for South Asia's youth
Bhutan and Sri Lanka top the list in the region with more than half of all young people in these countries projected to leave school in 2030 with basic skills. But the future looks bleaker for youth in India, Pakistan and Nepal.