Recently, I watched the heartbreaking story of a 24-year-old Kevin Ochieng, a first class honors degree graduate, whose excellent academic performance did not secure him a decent job. He articulated well how he worked hard, excelled in exams, and was looking forward to put his training and expertise into practice. Instead, he is still unemployed and living on the streets of Nairobi.
I asked myself: How many young African graduates like Kevin are out there?
A recent feature by the Nation titled “The reality of Kenyan youth: Young, educated, ambitious and jobless” clearly articulates the situation. In South Africa, according to the recently released quarterly Labour Force survey, 2nd Quarter 2019, 35.6 % of those aged 25-34 are unemployed. Just recently, South Africa reported how many graduates are struggling to find meaningful work. This trend is common in other countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Ghana and Mali. What happens over and over is that youth are trained and then many of them have no place to practice that what they have learned and some end up being jobless. Seeing no hope for employment in the near future, those who can may decide to migrate.
There are several reasons that explain this troubling trend. These include a weak African economy, lack of a vibrant private sector, manufacturing jobs and financial support for African youth to become entrepreneurial, and a mismatch between available jobs and the training African youth. There is also a lack of sound employment and job policies. At the core of all these issues is poor governance.
The situation is even more upsetting when one considers how Africa’s educated youth are well equipped with the expertise needed to transform and develop the African continent, yet, their skills and expertise remains untapped. Instead, African countries continue to tap into foreign expertise or unknowledgeable experts, many of who are political appointees.
Clearly, African countries must commit to reversing this trend. We must shift these statistics. We must create jobs and put into use the skills its youth have. It is time to welcome them to the governments, to departments of agriculture, and any other place of influence.
So how do we facilitate the rapid absorption of the youth and the ideas they bring along?
First, African country governments should implement sound job and employment policies. These can range from policies that provide an enabling environment for the private sector to create jobs that enable the youth to build skills that are in demand. Governments can also see that they leverage already existing employers including NGO’s to support and employ youth or support young entrepreneurs through initiatives by which governments procure goods and services from youth-owned businesses.
In addition, countries can also implement affirmative policies to ensure all government ministries or departments including the Ministry of Agriculture have certain positions that are exclusively set aside for recently trained graduates. Some countries like Uganda and Kenya are working to change policies as a way to tackle youth employment.
Even with policies, it is unlikely that all graduates, and the many unemployed youth will be absorbed in the formal sector.
For those that do not end up having office jobs, they can consider being entrepreneurial. According to recent data by the African Development Bank, 22% of Africa’s working age have established new businesses. What’s more is that coming along with a rising middle class in Africa is an increase in the number of consumers and consumer spending, creating more opportunities for youth-led businesses to thrive and grow. As they grow, they can in turn offer employment to other youths.
Evidently, it is clear that the entrepreneurial landscape in Africa is excellent. According to 2018/2019 Global Entrepreneurship Monitor report, Africa and Middle East region has by far the highest number of people involved in early state entrepreneurial activity. And because the entrepreneurship ground is fertile, African youth, especially recent graduates, should continue to innovate, think out of the box and create for themselves businesses and the opportunities to put their skills and brilliant minds to work.
Importantly, to continue building a prosperous Africa, where trained young people are absorbed in careers, Universities must restructure their training programs and train not just for the sake of it, but also to fill in the market demand. This also demands creation of vocation schools and institutes where youths can train for specific jobs including digital jobs. Just recently, Google Africa announced that it will give over 30,000 young African developers scholarships and grants to help them become certified on Google’s Android, web and cloud technologies. African youth should latch on such opportunities. It is a win for both.
Ultimately, cutting down on youth unemployment in Africa while ensuring that we tap onto the skills and passion African youthful graduates bring along, will require rolling out of sound employment policies. It will mean continuing to tap onto entrepreneurship while continuously adapting the education system to ensure that graduates have the skills to match the market demand. It is possible.
Esther Ngumbi is Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign