The challenging problem of labour and youth education: A wake up call for Africa

By George Boateng

Jobless growth for a booming youth population, graduate unemployment and the skills challenge of the 4IR were questions with which participants grappled during the Youth Employment and Skills Chapter meeting of the recent African Transformation Forum.

Since 1990, most economies in Sub-Saharan Africa have seen some level of growth, buoyed by reforms in macroeconomic management, an improved business environment, and commodity price hikes. But this growth has not translated into productive jobs—a major problem for a region with a booming youth population.

According to the United Nations, Sub-Saharan Africa boasts the world’s youngest population with more than three-fifths of its inhabitants under the age of 25. The region’s working age population is estimated to rise from 522 million in 2015 to 600 million, an increase of 45 percent by 2030.

But the current labour market and education outlook are challenging. In most African countries, more than 80 percent of workers are in the informal sector. According to the International Monetary Fund, much of Africa’s share of GDP and employment comes from the informal economy. Whereas in the past the unemployed and those in the informal sector in Africa were mainly the uneducated, now the face of unemployment and the urban informal sector in lower middle-income countries is becoming that of the secondary or tertiary school graduate. And in low-income countries, even though the youth are entering the job market in unprecedented numbers, underemployment is gaining traction. Although significant progress has been made on access to primary education in Africa, the quality of education remains low, according to the Brookings Center for Universal Education, as do levels of attainment.

There are many reasons for growing unemployment among Africa’s educated youth, including more secondary level graduates due to the growing population, a rapid increase in access to primary school, and improving access to secondary and tertiary institutions. At the same time, the pace of expansion in job demand in Africa’s formal sectors has not matched the pace of graduation from secondary and tertiary institutions, while graduates cannot meet all the job demand in the formal sector because of the poor quality of their education.

Global trends are not helping matters, either. The rapid evolution of robotics, 3-D printing (or additive manufacturing technology), artificial intelligence, and the “Internet-of-Things”—known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)—is projected to fundamentally disrupt manufacturing technology, with significant implications for the future and nature of jobs. The downside of disruption could be significant job losses owing to workers being replaced by technology and machines, as well as changes to the nature and location of work. Countries need to ensure people have the skills they need to minimize these future impacts—and help drive transformation in the process. On the other hand, it could be argued that the 4IR offers new opportunities to create jobs through modernized agriculture and export-led manufacturing, as well as modernized services, tourism and the creative industries.

What should Africa do—particularly considering its bulging youth population, which needs the appropriate skills to graduate into good jobs?

This was one of the many questions addressed at the 2018 African Transformation Forum (ATF2018), which was recently held in Accra, Ghana, and organized by the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). The two-day forum brought together hundreds of like-minded stakeholders to discuss policy issues to be addressed through the Pan-African Coalition for Transformation (PACT), a platform that allow governments, policy makers, and other like-minded stakeholders to share knowledge and experiences and to collaborate in driving the design and implementation of innovative policies for economic transformation. PACT is composed of thematic chapters, including one centred on Youth Employment and Skills (YES). The YES chapter focuses on the levers through which youth unemployment can be reduced by enhancing skills development to help meet the future jobs needs for young people.

The ATF2018 working session of the YES Chapter was well-attended, and rightly so. Its high-level participants were clearly eager to create momentum. When Rosemond Offei-Awuku, the African Development Bank’s Chief Development Economist under the Jobs for Youth in Africa Initiative, suggested that the Chapter needed a champion country to host and spearhead discussions on addressing youth and employment as well as the growing skills gap, the room responded with applause.

By the end of the all-day working session, the YES Chapter reached consensus on four other critical areas:

  • The need for a comprehensive database on labour market projections, entrepreneurs, and skills gaps.
  • Increased peer-to-peer learning, tailored to each country’s vision, to help facilitate interaction between policy makers, academia and the private sector, and to help monitor progress.
  • A deliberate policy action for African countries (such as the 2003 Maputo declaration, in which governments agreed to a 10 percent national budgetary allocation for agriculture), spearheaded by the PACT YES chapter, to increase policy focus on technical and vocational institutions across sub-Saharan Africa, including an increase in funding.
  • A collective shift in mindset toward more technical and vocational training across the entire education ecosystem—including teachers, parents, policy makers, and the private sector—accompanied by innovative approaches to policy design.

Resources alone are not enough to ensure Africa’s young people secure productive work amid a changing labour market. The key is ensuring that they gain the skills they need through the education system, while also ensuring that private sector and individuals generate jobs. Reformed curricula that are innovative enough to meet current and evolving labour demands—and a deliberate government policy that increases spending and allocates resources to technical and vocational training—needs immediate attention. The working session of the PACT’s Youth Employment and Skills Chapter at ATF2018 offered an encouraging step in the right direction, and it showed that necessary momentum continues to build.

George Boateng is the Engagement Manager of the PACT YES Chapter at the African Center for Economic Transformation

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