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Moving The Needle On Youth Unemployment In Africa: From learning to Employment

December 14, 2021

Africa is no stranger to crisis. With two out of three people globally impacted by food insecurity living on the continent, the region is grappling with humanitarian crises, civil unrest and natural disasters. Now, it has been disproportionately affected by the global Covid-19 pandemic. The resulting economic factors are already hampering progress and prospects, causing widening inequalities between and within nations; worsening current fragilities and further exacerbating the jobs crisis.The formal sector creates only one job per four young people entering the workforce, leaving an overwhelming portion of the population scrambling to find work. In most African countries, the unemployment rate for youths is double that of adults, while 60% of Africa’s unemployed are youths.

With this mandate at heart, the Africa Creates Jobs Conference recently concluded, with an inherent focus on action and driving a responsive and agile skills and jobs agenda for economic growth in Africa. The name change from African Talks Jobs to Africa Creates Jobs further illustrated a new direction and impetus toward moving the needle on youth unemployment on the continent.

During the conference, stakeholders who shape skills and employment agendas discussed key challenges within the labour ecosystem. The message was clear: Africa must unite in the spirit of “Ubuntu” – with a coordinated response that embodies the values of togetherness and acknowledges the impact of collective actions on individuals and society at large.

“As Africans, we’re taught about Ubuntu, but our humility and modesty is destroying us,” shared Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba during his keynote address. “Our humility stops us from coming to the table with ideas. This deprives us of what is deservedly ours.”  Professor Mthunzi Mdwaba, an accomplished businessman, organised business activist, academic and thought leader, added, “Covid has revealed that Africa has a flawed economic structure that we haven’t addressed. Our reality is flawed because the solutions we allow to be proposed to us and then imposed on us are not homegrown and this is why they are likely to always fail.”

A resounding theme of creating African solutions for African issues, guided over 700 stakeholders from within the employment ecosystem. “We are here to have a dialogue of purpose,” AUDA-NEPAD’s Unami Mpofu stressed. “We know the problems: Let us present the solutions. We are here to make progress towards a job and skills resolution, to have the Africa we want.”

A culmination of five regional workshops, held between August and November 2021, the ACJ! 2021 Continental Dialogue saw stakeholders earmark best practices as a foundation to form a roadmap toward helping regional leaders direct policies and scarce resources in ways that would ultimately bolster long-term, inclusive job growth.

Bringing the Youth to the Table

It is no surprise that both economists and policymakers find Africa’s rapidly growing employment gap an emotionally charged impasse. The issue is further aggravated by a rapidly growing youth population, for whom the lack of formal jobs forces them to engage in the informal sector: characterized by uncertainty, lack of social safety nets and massive inefficiencies in terms of productivity and income growth.

“This conference comes at a very opportune moment when Africa is at a turning point within its demographic structure,” shared Professor Sarah Mbi Enow Anyang Agbor, who currently serves as the FAWE Africa Board Chairperson (2021 – 2023) and is the African Union Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology. Amidst growing attention on the need to provide solutions for Africa’s youth, she noted the importance of holding the conference at this time. “Our youth need results – they need deliverables,“ she urged.

Professor Agbor called for a redirected focus on the education and skills development ecosystem; one that took cognisance of the labour market’s needs, in preparing young people for a productive life. In echoing her sentiment, Dr Thomas Helfen, of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), pointed out the importance of finding and pursuing the appropriate policies and strategies to address the growing challenges and barriers to the development of youth skills on the continent. A ‘fit-for-purpose’ labour force is needed, he said, urging stakeholders to close the skills gap between supply and demand. 

Many of the policy discussions taking place at the global and continental levels have focused on youth – their educational needs, engagements, and livelihoods.  The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) consider the youth essential partners for achieving inclusive and peaceful societies. Add to this, The African Youth Charter calls for states to prepare youth with the necessary skills for participation in political and decision-making processes.

Active youth participation is the way forward. “Where partnerships often fail is because there is no sharing of data,” Belinda Lewis of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator explained to participants. “We need to include young people in the conversations, formally or informally.”  In this light, the open dialogue over the two-day virtual conference ensured that the youth’s views were consistently represented in debates affecting them the most.

Skills & Qualifications are at the Heart of the African Renaissance

Team Leader Skills & Employability at AUDA-NEPAD, Unami Mpofu lead an animated discussion on day one around enhancing employability, “We need to give young people the skills to adapt and be resilient,” she urged. “We need to have in place mechanisms in which we can grow our economies and slot in the necessary skills. In order to do this, we need to build a responsive skills system.” Stressing one of the continent’s key challenges to growth and development, she called for a transformation of the Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) systems across the continent. Conversations revealed a profound mismatch between skills and job opportunities. “Training and education that equips young people with the skills employers require are imperative. A lack of funding has prevented TVET systems across the continent from meeting present and future skill requirements,” she added.

The Economy Is Informal So Jobs Are Informal

Various stakeholders present at the conference, including policy-makers and employer organizations, acknowledged that informality in all its forms represents a major barrier to sustainable development. More than 86 percent of all employment in Africa is informal and the sector is the main source of employment and the backbone of economic activity.

Low productivity characterizes informal businesses, resulting in low and irregular earnings. This is aggravated by a lack of access to basic services such as water and electricity, a dedicated space to operate, and access to high-value markets.Speaking on the impact of technology on the future of work, Professor Mdwaba pointed out that during Covid most people were on digital platforms, but stressed, “We did not spare a thought that like access running water, the majority of our people cannot connect online.”  Most people find themselves in the informal economy not by choice, but due to the lack of opportunities in formal employment and the absence of other means of earning a living.

“There are immense skills that are untapped in the informal sector and we need to drive policies to recognise these skills beyond the traditional framework,” Richard Muteti, Kenya National Federation of JuaKali Associations shared, as he called for action and a drive toward evaluation of skills and experience. “When you assist the informal sector gain access to market, their lives improve dramatically.”

In the informal sector, women make up a disproportionate share of workers, almost 90 percent, from street vendors and domestic workers to subsistence farmers and seasonal employees in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors. What was established throughout the talks was the need to build capacity and provide better service and support within the informal sector, especially for marginalised groups.

“Women need to become part of the skills revolution in Africa,” Daniel Antwi of the Africa SkillsHub urged stakeholders. “There is no denying women lead-businesses create more jobs. Once you help one woman, you help a community.” Throughout the workshops and discussions, what stakeholders agreed on was the fact that youth unemployment could not be solved in isolation from the major economic challenges facing nations today. From a dire need for a skills revolution on the continent to sharing of expertise and best practices to the need for structural change and reform, the consensus was to move from talking to action. Professor Agbor, said it aptly when she relayed, “The youth of Africa are tired of the rhetoric and we must match words with action.”It is time to no longer see Africa as a continent of crisis, but one of opportunity. One that embraces the spirit of togetherness and will take the Covid-19 crisis as a learning experience from which to grow. And ACJ is the driver of that change

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