One key dimension of the unemployment situation in Africa is rising unemployment among educated youth. In fact, in many countries, young people who have attained higher levels of education are worse off than those without. A high-quality education should impart hands-on-skills to individuals to make them employable and able to contribute to transforming the structure of the economy as a country develops. Yet, in the midst of increased educational access and enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa, the prevailing educational system has not successfully commissioned this task—it turns out that education and training at all levels is far from the quality required to transform economies in the region.
Africa may be rising, but not necessarily through its educated youth
A consequence of this low quality of education and skills training is the mismatch of the skills demanded by industry and what graduates actually possess upon completion of their studies.
In Ghana, insufficient exposure to industry and the real-world work environment may be one of the reasons that the transition to work can be particularly challenging for youth. Polytechnics and technical institutes across all administrative regions do have internship programs that allow students to apply the skills acquired in the classroom in actual workplace settings or workshops, depending on a student’s discipline, as part of the curricula.
However, these internship initiatives are largely unstructured, due to the poor coordination between trainers (teachers), students, and industries that host students. Internships and industrial attachments are not usually part of most undergraduate and postgraduate programs at universities. A significant proportion of students from universities are not encouraged (or indeed required) to partake in any form of work (especially during recess periods) where they might put the skills they’ve learned to use.
Discovering the skill gaps between what industry needs, and those possessed by the youth, was one of the fundamental questions of a recent research project, “Economic Complexity and Employment of Women and Youth: The Case of Ghana.” Through interviews with business executives of 20 firms from the chemical, rubber/plastics, wood, machinery/electrical, and food processing industries, we explored what characteristics of young people and women might advantage or disadvantage them during the recruitment and hiring process. Key among managers’ concerns is the low quality of skills possessed by new labor market entrants, necessitating additional training by employers. As one dairy-product manufacturer bluntly stated, “newly engaged technicians know next to nothing.”
An experienced and successful industrialist indicated that the nonexistence of industry-specific training institutions (that focus solely on, say, leatherworks, electronics, textiles, etc.) in Ghana is a great human capital challenge. Similarly, the industrialist noted that young workers’ inability to cope with work on factory floors stems from the lack of exposure to similar work environments while in school.
This same situation arises for humanities and business administration graduates recruited for administrative tasks. Managers at some of the surveyed firms expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of young graduates, stating that new graduates from these backgrounds are, in some cases, unable to perform simple administrative tasks, such as putting together memos, and writing minutes and reports. According to those interviewed, most graduates are unable to think beyond what they’ve been exposed to in school. The executives also mentioned that many young workers lack initiative and rarely bring any creativity to bear in solving work-based problems.
On-the-job training remains important
Reactions to what could be done by industry and other stakeholders to change the above trend were, however, mixed. For example, one manufacturing executive was of the opinion that the output of young workers at the workplace is largely dependent on the nature of the organization, i.e., whether or not the prevailing environment promotes workers taking an initiative. In many instances, according to the executive, training offered by manufacturers and installers of machinery and equipment purchased from Europe and Asia to boost the skills of local workers had the desired impact—as the trainees are then able to repair and maintain the installed machinery when the installers go back. Another manager stressed that firms seek continuous improvement to stay competitive, and this approach has to be adopted by training institutions. Indeed, integration of industry and workplace culture into the current educational curricula was recommended by some executives.
At the same time, there is a dire need for schools and other training centers to constantly upgrade curricula to meet current industrial requirements.
Improved science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education offered for young people and women can be beneficial to recipients and the economy as a whole—but may be counterproductive if unaccompanied by exposure of trainees to actual work environments. Internships and industrial attachment programs have to be well coordinated to produce graduates with the relevant skills demanded by industry. Perhaps inculcating soft skills (social skills, teamwork, flexibility, problem-solving and communication skills among others, which a paper on soft skills by James Heckman and Tim Kautz in 2012 showed to predict success in life) and work-based learning schemes into schools’ curricula, could augment cognitive and personality traits of trainees, as well as enhance their employability. These work-based learning schemes should take the form of assessable work placements run concurrently with classwork, and with supervisors and teachers jointly providing training.