Tackling Youth Under-Employability in sub-Saharan Africa

* An edited version of this article was published on the Fair Observer platform.

To become a transformational force for good, Africa’s youths must be employable

At the African Gold Rush: 2014 NYU Africa Economic Forum, Makhtar Diop, the World Bank’s Vice President for the Africa Region made mention of fundamental challenges facing Africa—one of which is equipping Africa’s “greatest natural resource”, its human capital with “the modern skills and knowledge they need to formulate and implement African solutions for Africa’s challenges”.

At present, Africa is undergoing a population boom. 61% of its population is 24 years old or younger according to the United Nations World Populations Prospects (Table I.4) while another 34 percent is between 25-59 years old. Much speculation has been made about whether the growing youth population will be a curse of blessing. Makhtar Diop believes it can be the latter if the youth are “…educated, trained, and employable”.

Youth Unemployment and Under-Employability

According to the United Nations Africa Renewal publication, the unemployment rate for sub-Saharan Africa is 6% and citing the World Bank, the magazine discloses that, youths account for 60% of the unemployed within this region. Populations are multiplying faster than jobs are being created.

The United Nations ECOSOC President quoting Tony O. Elumelu in an official tweet on April 10, 2014 wrote, “By 2020, Africa will need 122 million jobs if we are to succeed in the fight against poverty”. Who is responsible for creating more jobs? It is ultimately the responsibility of government to manipulate fiscal policies sagaciously to create an enabling environment in which youths can find or create jobs. Reducing taxes for instance put more money into the hands of consumers and incentivizes employers to expand and hire more staff. Likewise increased government spending on new public projects such as infrastructure creates jobs helping to reduce unemployment.

That notwithstanding unemployment in sub-Saharan Africa is not solely due to unavailability of jobs. Sometimes jobs exist but youths are not employable—meaning they do not have the requisite set of skills, knowledge and personal attributes sought after by employers.

The solution to under-employability is complex and requires continuous interaction and cooperation between four major actors—namely governments who give accreditation to education providers and approve the curricula or content of study, providers of education, learners (potential employees) and employers. Regular interaction between these four bearing in mind national goals and prevailing markets conditions and demands is necessary to coming up with an educational reform that satisfies all sides and reduces the under-employability of African youth.

Tackling Under-Employability

The prevalent prescription given to address under-employability is to get education providers to equip learners with skills, knowledge and attitudes being sought after by employers. The role of government and learners is less pronounced but no less important.

The latter is an important stakeholder because they sell their skills in the labour market. The former is also important because each nation in sub-Saharan Africa is at a different developmental stage and each is endowed with certain resources giving them varying strategic competitive advantages. Based on their individual competitive strengths, each nation hopefully has formulated national goals and vision. Each thus has different skills needs in the attainment of national goals that must be factored into how they educate and equip their youths for their peculiar labour markets. For instance instead of Ghana’s government spending on oil and gas scholarships for their residents in the West, they can reform their higher education institutions to cater to that national need. Rwanda on the other hand, not being a resource rich country should focus on equipping its people through education for the services industry. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy for all sub-Saharan African nations.

The Africa Economic Outlook is the result of collaboration between the African Development Bank Group, OECD Development Centre, UNDP and the Economic Commission of Africa. The outlook discloses that for sub-Saharan African economies to be more be job-intensive, growth must be accompanied by structural transformation. What this means is that there must be:

“…reallocation of economic resources from activities with low productivity – such as family farming, or petty informal trading – to more productive ones – such as manufacturing”.

At present, much of sub-Saharan Africa exports most of its primary products—which become inputs for importing countries that add value to the inputs and send the finished products back to the continent at high prices. Its time African states start adding value locally. This will help curb youth unemployment by creating local industries and jobs. It will also earn countries in this region foreign exchange if they are able to export some of the finished products. But so that all the newly created jobs do not go to foreigners, the issue of under-employability of youths needs to be tackled aggressively.

Governments through the ministries of education, education providers and other stakeholders should mitigate this challenge by coming up with nation-specific curricula that provide youth with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes needed to partake in the structural transformation and industrialization of their economies.

That said, employability involves more than simply redesigning curricula. Oxford and Cambridge Universities have respectable curricula but yet produce graduates who are less employable than lesser known institutions. One reason for this might be a disconnect between these well know Universities and employers. Sub-Saharan Africa nations must foster communication and cooperation between education providers and employers. Any person conversant with this region will know that currently this communication and cooperation is largely non-existent.

The Realty on the Ground

In sub-Saharan Africa, the prerequisite for acquiring the foundation skills necessary for decent jobs is completing lower secondary school. Millions in this region are not able to attain this. According to the EFA Global Monitoring Report, 69 million adolescents were out of school in 2011. Of this number, about a third was in sub-Saharan Africa. Of the percentage of out-of-school adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa, majority are female. Somehow the notion still persists in this region that if families have meager resources to pay for education, it’s more advantageous to educate the male. Such a state of affairs impedes development within this region.

The EFA Global Monitoring Report adds that, “unplanned growth in private schooling appears to be excluding many of the continent’s more disadvantaged adolescents”. In Ghana for instance because public universities are few and unable to cater for the demand for higher education, many private universities have sprouted up to meet the excess demand. Private universities charge market rates which exclude the poor from accessing their services. But this is not the only dilemma. Of the favored few youths that are able to enroll in either public or private universities, many exit the system not employable.

Where graduates are employable, they are confronted with a labour market fraught with nepotism and cronyism. Instead of jobs being secured based on merit, many secure positions on the basis of who pays the most bribe.

The government is responsible for ensuring a conducive and enabling environment for young people to create entrepreneurial opportunities but in many sub-Saharan African countries, the youth will tell you this is not the case.

Instead of government bureaucracies facilitating the ease of starting new businesses, they sometimes unconsciously do the opposite by frustrating young Afropreneurs who are made to go through layers of red tape. Additionally transaction costs are significantly higher because of corruption. These challenges inhibit young people from creating employment opportunities.

Of course there are exceptional cases where Afropreneurs have broken through and successfully created employment opportunities that has grown by leaps and bound but this is the exception and not the norm. Examples include some of the continent’s most successful entrepreneurs like Strive Masiyiwa, Africa’s telecom mogul and Aliko Dangote, Nigeria’s business magnate.

In closing, youth under-employability and unemployment are not insurmountable challenges for sub-Sahara Africa. All that is needed is leadership on the side of government to steer a multi-stakeholder consultative process that matches needs of the labour market with what learners are equipped with. Where youths are employable but find it difficult to find or create jobs, its once again up to government to take the leadership in making the process easier by tackling the cancer of corruption and excessive bureaucracies. There is a need for government willingness and capacity to invest time, money and energy in youth resource development but will governments in this region take up this responsibility?

That remains to be seen. The expected return on this investment will be that the increasing youth populations in this region will become a huge dividend driving development instead of a disaster.