Youth Unemployment in Africa: Post-COVID Skills Revolution Challenge

Published on 12th January 2021

The refreshing fruit of inconvenient truth

The shortest distance between two points may not be a straight line, but a detour. Though COVID-19 has imposed a detour on the paths of individuals, communities and nations, there is room in 2021 to expedite post-pandemic recovery. To Africa’s dominant youthful demographic, this is a fresh inspiration to exploit new opportunities for skills development, decent and rewarding work, and reaching the pinnacle of ultimate lifetime achievements.

Negotiating a detour to expedite post-pandemic recovery

Dr Shaka Ssali, a celebrated African journalist, recently reflected on his twenty-year journey of hosting the Voice of America’s Straight Talk Africa programme. He shared his inspirational conviction that the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line, but a detour. To lovers of mathematics, this was a classic case of taking vectors off the pages of textbooks to the arena of real-life application. Not to mention, as he put it, that as a student his teacher once dishearteningly contrasted his peerless speed on the track to his poor speed in class. That he finally overcame the dismissal by the teacher only tells half the story of his massive success on the world stage as an international figure of influence. He intimated that the detours he took on his non-linear career journey paid off, eventually and handsomely.  

Similarly, the COVID-19 global pandemic has been a disruptive detour redirecting the course of post-pandemic skills development regimes and landscape. The disruption may well pay off by expediting the attainment of what were erstwhile seemingly lofty, daring, and distant goals for global, regional, national and personal development. The story of Africa’s post-pandemic recovery is the story of her youthful demographic, who continue to bear the brunt of mass unemployment despite the increasing stock of advanced qualifications. The remedy lies in a skills revolution paradigm that ensures inclusive empowerment and diversification of opportunities for the youth. Their meaningful engagement in decent and rewarding work requires quality and skills-based education and training. 

Unrelenting and rising burden of the unemployed youth demographic

Youth unemployment is a growing global problem. The International Labour Organization estimated that more than 73 million youth aged 15–24 were unemployed in 2015. The number continues to rise. Home to the world’s youngest and fastest growing population, currently rising at 2.49% annually, Africa faces a serious and escalating burden of youth unemployment in the post-pandemic era. The median age of 20 in Africa is less than half the median age in the European Union (43). The flagship programmes of the African Union’s Agenda 2063 require a highly skilled workforce, hence a skills revolution. In contrast, the existing structural deficiencies and wide digital divide across Africa aggravate the shortcomings and shortage of work-ready skills among African youth. COVID-19 has further exposed Africa’s fragile educational infrastructure, unable to withstand the waves of a ravaging pandemic as the majority of learners could not access e-learning. This observation advances the urgency of realising the strategic objectives of the African Union’s 2016–2025 Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 16–25), especially the third objective of harnessing the capacity of ICT to improve the access, quality and management of education and training systems.

The youth unemployment challenge in Africa can be discussed comprehensively based on the global sustainable development priorities and aspirations for 2030 as reflected in the SDG 4 and SDG 8 targets that deal with the business themes on capacity building, skilled workforce, and youth employment (SDG 4.4, SDG 8.3, and SDG 8.b). The goals match the first African Union Agenda 2063 aspiration of a prosperous Africa based on inclusive growth and sustainable development, particularly Goal 2 on “Well-educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by Science, Technology and Innovation (STI)”. 

A growing skills deficit in an inverted pyramid of qualifications

The COVID-19 global pandemic has increased the urgency of innovative skills development models that can equip African youth with adaptive, market- and future-ready skills to exploit the promises of the post-COVID-19 digital economy, gig economy, green economy, circular economy, and virtual collaboration opportunities. Mainstream discussions in the era of Industry 4.0 also support broad-based curriculum development to equip university graduates with adaptive skills for resilience, a quality essential to cross-disciplinary collaboration and research in the fast-changing era of technology-driven convergence in disciplines. 

The 2020 Global Skills Index Report by Coursera has shown that skills proficiency is critical to robust socioeconomic development across countries. This has been manifested in resilience amidst shocks and disruptions, lower unemployment rates, lower income inequality, and higher per capita GDP. Europe is the most skilled region according to the finding. This finding motivates more emphasis on skilling Africa’s dominant youthful demographic for post-pandemic recovery and resilience. 

Past studies involving key informant surveys and youth mentorship sessions across ten countries by the author, between 2014 and 2020, have found that the existing education models across Africa create an oversupply of academic qualifications but an undersupply of work-ready skills.  The skewed outcome has been given a dual figurative description in the previous studies as “drops of skills in an ocean of academic qualifications” and the “inverted pyramid effect” – producing more of the less required qualifications but less of the most needed skill sets. The skewed outcome also manifests in pedagogy. Scientific inquiry, systems thinking, talent management, spatial intelligence, and communication skills have been mostly neglected in basic education. 

A study of the skills development model in Germany as a European best practice provides key lessons in guided career development trajectories. The model ensures an early identification of learner capabilities and interests to guide smooth transitions into Hauptschule, Realschule, Gymnasium, Fachhochschule, and Universität.  The lessons are valuable for Africa on how to come up with the right and upright pyramid that serves justice to the curve of talents and labour market demographics. 

Education 4.0 and research on addressing youth unemployment 

Research on youth unemployment in Africa should establish facts and informed perspectives on the key talent management and skills development needs that education curricula should prioritise to ensure a youth-inclusive and just transition into the post-pandemic labour market. Informed by systems thinking principles, measures and mechanisms to facilitate early talent identification from the basic school level and sustained mentorship must be part of the research scope. The quality of learners at higher education institutions has structural interconnectedness and interdependencies with the quality of the basic education shaping the younger learners. The actionable intelligence arising from such studies should inform the implementation of a domesticated skills revolution plan. 

In today’s rapidly changing labour market influenced by digital transformation, the resulting skills gap and the rapid reduction in the half-life of skills compound the rising youth unemployment problem. Education 4.0, in tandem with the emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution, has to respond to the new skills development needs of the millennial and subsequent generations. The 21st-century youth are digital natives, who must develop resilient coping strategies in a labour market increasingly influenced by automation and artificial intelligence. With the advent of the gig economy and remote working, career security based on transferable skills is replacing job security based on tradition; quintessentially, the era of permanent jobs and permanent loyalty to one employer amid a long-term preoccupation with routine tasks is fading away as today’s youth mostly stay 2-3 years on a job.  

Reflections on skilling Africa’s youth for enhanced engagement in 2021 and beyond

Not spared by the COVID-19 repercussions, Africa has to address the growing problem of youth unemployment by going digital and borderless in education and skills development, a challenge that requires active partnerships between learning institutions, public agencies, and the private sector. The advent of increasing interest by various investors and multilateral agencies in promoting skills development in Africa has lowered the barriers to skilling the African youth in a rich environment of international and intercultural exchange. Key public policy questions remain on ensuring a just, inclusive and sustainable transition into the fast-evolving post-COVID labour market of the 21st century. 

As extensively discussed at the World Economic Forum, the wave of digital transformation is creating a borderless future featuring a globalised marketplace and competition for talents. Automation is expected to be a net job creator, but will only favour the reskilled and upskilled workers as the others lose their routine jobs. Labour mobility and talent migration are increasingly becoming compelling and inevitable. The emerging regional blocs within and across Africa demonstrate the interconnected nature of the new post-COVID space for conducting business. The commencement of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) in January 2021 is a key example of economic integration, which promises new value creation in a digital economy. Similar integration in education, training, and research is also urgent so as to achieve the African Union’s skills revolution targets and technology transfer opportunities towards a knowledge- and technology-driven transformation. 

Agility, flexibility, and adaptive resilience in skill sets are together forming the critical axis of influence in the emerging post-COVID digital economy. The implication for modern pedagogy is to inculcate in young learners the skills needed for critical, exploratory and broad-based awareness to match the needs of the emerging labour markets. There is ongoing technology convergence and continuous blurring of self-imposed subject boundaries. The trend of narrow specialisation in training runs against the grain of cross-disciplinary collaboration, which is required for viable cross-fertilisation of ideas within modern innovation ecosystems.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) needs enhancement to increase the stock of skilled workers, who must make up the broad base of the upright pyramid of labour market demographics. Pedagogical re-engineering is needed to help boost skills-focused, digital, and borderless education and training programmes. Multi-agency and multilateral partnerships with the active involvement of industry stakeholders, entrepreneurs, and highly skilled Africans in diaspora are key to enhancing peer-to-peer knowledge exchange, mentorship, and skills and technology transfer. Organisations such as the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) are promising agents in this endeavour. The DAAD has been sponsoring relevant examples such as the African-German centres of academic excellence, the African Centre for Career Enhancement and Skills Support (ACCESS), and the African German Entrepreneurship Academy. For enhanced impact, local youth mentorship programmes such as Impact Borderless Digital (IBD) must renew their promise and commitment to the youth in 2021, refine their strategies, and redouble their efforts and outreach as multipliers.

As a ready outlook, nation-states in Africa will need to work towards achieving coherence in policies and standards for skills development, knowledge exchange, and labour mobility so that a critical mass of youth can be sustained as active participants in job creation, labour productivity, and meaningful employment.

By Nashon Adero

The author has more than fifteen years of consolidated cross-sector experience, drawn from the geomatics industry as an engineering surveyor, from public service as a policy analyst in a governmental think tank, and currently in the academia as a lecturer of engineering and geoinformatics at Taita Taveta University, Kenya. He also  mentors youth in career development under his youth mentorship programme (IBD) and Kenya’s Presidential Digital Talent Programme. 

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