Youth Employment Is Key to Development in Africa

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Written by Anthony Orlando

Germany recently hosted the Group of 20 (G20) summit in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. During the much-anticipated summit, Germany unveiled the “Marshall Plan for Africa,” a broad plan detailing how Germany, and the rest of Europe, should engage with Africa. The “B20,” a parallel meeting of business leaders from the G20 countries, released another plan outlining 10 goals for the donor community and international businesses to facilitate investment in Africa. The recommendations include improving vital sectors such as infrastructure, health, and telecommunications. However, the true key to the development of Africa, which is only touched on slightly in the final recommendation, is increasing youth employment through targeted education and skills training.

Demographics Matter

Demographics are the main reason a focus on increasing youth employment is so critical. With 63 percent of its population below the age of 25 in 2010, Africa is a young continent. According to the United Nation’s International Labor Organization (ILO), Africa’s population between the ages of 15 and 24 will double to 830 million by 2050. It is also estimated that by 2030, 42 percent of the world’s population between 15 and 24 will be African. This population growth will lead to the continent having the fastest urbanization rate in the world, along with a growing consumer goods market, and need for commodities such as food and electricity.

The 2017 unemployment rate for youth in Sub-Saharan Africa is approximately 10.8 percent, and 29.2 percent in Northern Africa. That said, there is a high variation in unemployment numbers around the continent. More than 50 percent of youth are unemployed in South Africa, about five times higher than the regional average. The situation is difficult even among those that can find employment—70 percent of working youth in Africa live under the two dollars per day international poverty line.

The current unemployment rates will be huge challenge if nothing is done. However, there is an incredible opportunity to develop the continent if there are job opportunities for this growing slice of the world’s population.

Skills Mismatch

A major issue in youth unemployment is a mismatch between the skills youth hold and what the job market requires. This comes in several forms, such as a lack of training or education, as well as “over education,” or a formal tertiary education that is unaligned with available jobs.

As for lack of training, a major potential problem is the dearth of people trained in engineering skills. Trained engineers and scientists will be necessary as Africa’s population grows, urbanizes, and develops infrastructure- not to mention the need for more doctors to accommodate the rising population.

According to the World Bank, 21 percent of Africans are “overeducated” in the sense that they had to take jobs below their education level or do not align with their education. This type of underemployment leads to job dissatisfaction and many people who may technically be classified as “working,” but are engaged in subsistence activities in the informal economy.

What Can the B20 and African Business Community Actually Do?

There are many issues that prevent young Africans from getting a decent job or starting a formal business, such as lack of finance, infrastructure, and corruption. The issue of youth unemployment in Africa does not exist in a vacuum; there are many processes that need to be taken simultaneously. However, one step that can be taken is to provide proper training for young Africans in the fields they wish to enter. G20 nations and Europe should focus their resources on doing so. Donor countries can provide the technical and policy skills to assist African governments in reworking their education systems, as well as provide the financial resources to reorganize TVET, formal apprenticeships, and STEM education on the continent.

Other innovations in the education sector can shorten the gap between the jobs on the market and people with the skills to fill them. For example, the World Economic Forum’s 2016 “Action Agenda for Africa’s Competitiveness” recommends involving the private sector in curricula development (including technical vocational education) to ensure the skills taught are applicable to the reality of the job market. For example, a university degree may not be helpful to someone trying to enter a country’s growing tourism sector. However, training or certification in carpentry, customer service, food service, or transportation services might be.

It is undeniable that the recommendations the B20 made in its platform would benefit the continent of Africa. Part of its appeal is that it was an inclusive process – African business leaders were part of the conversation. After careful observation of industry and input from countries receiving funding, G20 and European countries should direct their financial and technical resources to serve the people that wish to enter growing fields. As demographics change, the economic outlook of Africa is dependent on the employment of its youth, and European and African governments and business leaders alike must operationalize new ways to help young Africans take advantage of this opportunity.

About the author: Anthony Orlando is an Africa Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). He is also an Associate Consultant with WARC Consulting, based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Anthony graduated from The University of Arizona with a BA in Economics & East Asian Studies.