"Young people around the world are facing an emerging opportunity divide between those who have access to a good education, the skills and connections to be successful and those who do not."
The Education for All and Millennium Development Goals were set out in 2000, but twelve years on the world is a very different place. Looking around us, there is a great deal of uncertainty. The economic and political landscape of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) continues to evolve following the Arab Spring. A global recession is exacerbating existing unemployment issues, even where the effects of the downturn are less evident, such as sub-Saharan Africa.
In particular, youth unemployment is growing across the region, and this presents a huge problem. We absolutely must not lose sight of the young people who will help shape the economies of tomorrow. These 'future builders' have the potential to challenge the status quo, yet in a shrinking labour market their options are becoming increasingly limited. Set to play a critical role in economic revival, our future builders need our support. How can we fashion a more inclusive economy? The answer is surely a cohesive, regional strategy and post- 2015 development agenda that addresses skills as well as opportunity.
Looking at the statistics, young people in the MENA region make up the largest share of the population, yet suffer the highest rates of unemployment. According to the 2012 Global Employment Trends report by the International Labour Organisation, youth in the region are around four times more likely to be unemployed than adults, with youth unemployment rates well in excess of 25 percent.
Many of these future builders have university and advanced degrees; but the issue of their unemployment is often more about skills than it is about academic preparation. In fact, a 2008 World Bank report stated that young people in MENA who have a university degree are more likely to be unemployed than their less-educated peers. In sub-Saharan Africa, the ILO found that 'youth tend to be affected disproportionally in an already extremely difficult labour market'.
Young people around the world are facing an emerging opportunity divide between those who have access to a good education, the skills and connections to be successful and those who do not. So how can we stimulate growth and support young people to shape the future they will inherit?
IDC predicts that by 2014, 90 percent of employers will require candidates to have ICT skills and the ILO has said that we need to foster entrepreneurship and self-employment among youth. To that end, we need to renew our focus on the role of ICT in employment and improve the framework for skills and apprenticeships. This is a long-term solution for securing supply and demand of the labour market. The region needs much quicker fixes, but the key question is: can countries in MENA and sub-Saharan Africa accomplish this?
Regional stakeholders must be proactive in engaging talented youth, and help to support skills and education programmes in line with existing government policies. Some countries are gaining good traction - for example, Microsoft recently partnered with the local Small and Medium Enterprises Development Authority (SMEDA) in Mauritius to roll-out a specific SME curriculum, called 'Build Your Business', designed to promote e-skills training and create new businesses across the region. We've trained 18 master trainers in the country who will shortly roll it out to more than 2000 SMEs in their database. Our aim is to show young Mauritian entrepreneurs how to leverage productivity and technology tools to grow their businesses, so it'll be exciting to see the outcome.
We're working on a similar Build Your Business project in Kenya, where we have already had success with working with a local NGO partner to drive employability through education. Despite a wealth of local IT talent in the country, several Kenyan industries still struggle to recruit candidates with specialized IT skills. We partnered with NetHope to open an online selection system to all computer science graduates in the country, attracting more than 400 submissions.
40 shortlisted students gained technical certification and professional skills training before being hired as paid interns in various companies, including Microsoft partner organisations. They are currently undergoing a six month mentorship program and hands-on training, with the ultimate result being full-time employment. Demand from local companies is growing so we have just initiated a second intake of graduates into this successful program, and expanded the number of placements.
A post-2015 development agenda must focus on providing young people in MENA and sub-Saharan Africa with opportunities like these - in other words, the right support, education and skills training they need to spur economic renewal and become the business leaders of the future. Our planning must be long-term and incorporate public-private partnerships that help close the opportunity divide, support young people to find good jobs through the right skills, and empower them to start their own businesses. We have placed a heavy burden of expectation on the shoulders of our future builders. But that burden must be carried, and as incumbent business leaders, we must support those that do that every step of the way. The region's future will be built by the next generation on the entrepreneurial foundations we lay today.
Louis Otieno is Regional Director, Business Development & Strategy for Microsoft Africa