Africa’s pressing need for targeted skills training

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • Africa’s youth population is rising exponentially, but many African graduates are failing to find good jobs
  • A new African Development Bank Group paper recommends that African countries invest in vocational training across education institutions and industry
  • It also highlights the immediate benefits that more apprenticeships could provide for young Africans and employers
  • Foreign institutions recruiting in Africa should conduct thorough research to identify skills shortages and mismatches in order to better target labour market demand

Africa’s youth population is currently estimated at 250 million, a staggering figure in terms of the potential for African economies as well as the number of young people looking for work on the continent. But that figure pales in comparison to these: 321 million – the predicted youth population in 2030 – and 840 million, the estimate for 2050.

A new report from African Development Bank Group (AfDB) – a development funding body that supports projects considered to have the best chance of contributing to economic and social development on the continent – is expressly focused on the challenges and opportunities these burgeoning youth populations present. The report is entitled Creating Decent Jobs: Strategies, Policies, and Instruments.

In his remarks introducing the report, Dr Akinwumi A. Adesina, AfDB’s president, notes that,

“What we [in Africa] do with that population of youth today will determine the future of work in the world. Africa must become the brimming workshop of the world — with a knowledgeable and highly skilled workforce that’s able to propel the continent into the fourth industrial revolution.”

By the “fourth industrial revolution,” Dr Adesina is referring to the exponential growth of digital technologies, and the resulting impact on economic, political, and cultural systems. Such technologies include artificial intelligence, robotics, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, materials science, energy storage, and quantum computing.

To prepare Africa for the fourth industrial revolution and harness the power of its youthful populations, the AfDB has announced a major Jobs for Youth in Africa initiative with a goal of creating 25 million jobs for youth.

Labour force challenges

There are acute skills mismatches in many African economies. The AfDB report uses the example of taxi drivers in Algeria and Cameroon to make the point:

“Many taxi drivers in Algiers (Algeria) hold graduate and even post-graduate degrees in the humanities and in the social sciences. In Douala (Cameroon), many Bensikineurs (motorcycle taxis) also hold degrees from advanced tertiary education, including in math and sciences. They graduated with what they thought were great degrees from colleges and universities. Surely, they did not anticipate that they would spend several years learning complex subjects and mastering valuable skills, just to end up spending their days in second- or third-hand cars and motorcycles on the streets, and often risking their lives in activities completely unrelated to their acquired knowledge. Some of them graduated from public colleges and universities. Others went through private institutions where they paid expensive tuition, using personal savings or borrowing money from family and friends. Yet, after their training, their skills sets do not appear to be in great demand in the labor market.”

The report notes that despite many African governments’ sizable investments in public higher education, “the education quality is often poor, the curricula outdated, and graduates lack the skills to land exciting job offers in many industries and sectors.”

Demand-led training and education

Traditional, generic measures such as broadly based funding initiatives are not working, the report argues. Instead, it says, there is a need for targeted skills training to respond precisely to labour market demands. To that end, the bank recommends:

  1. Prioritising vocational education and skills-specific education;
  2. Seeing such education delivered by a consortium-type arrangement of groups across educational and industrial sectors;
  3. Encouraging apprenticeships and incorporating these into degree programmes.

On the first point – vocational and skills-specific education – the report argues that academic institutions should adjust curricula to incorporate “better-targeted skill and capacity development programmes to directly respond to the market demand for labor.”

As for cross-sectoral collaboration, the AfDB recommends that:

“African countries should create skills enhancement zones where governments, the private sector, academic institutions, and nongovernmental organisations collaborate on the design and implementation of … plans for selected industries with strong competitive potential (mainly agroindustry, light manufacturing, and tourism). They are public-private centers where (mostly) young people are exposed to wide set of skills across sectors, connected to industrial clusters, and prepared for entrepreneurship.”

Such an initiative could quickly build the workforce needed in the country’s most competitive industries, says AfDB. Its report frequently stresses the urgency of matching education to highly specific industries that have clear potential to grow and that need skilled young workers.

And, the AfDB adds, there is an urgent need to recognise the value of apprenticeships and to incorporate them into the higher education system. The illustrative country example used here in the report is the US, where apprentices can obtain academic credits for their work and have them recognised as part of the path toward a college degree.

On top of the value that more apprenticeships would provide for young Africans – not the least of which is the ability to earn a decent wage as they obtain skills – the report notes the rapid results that would occur in the economy:

“For employers, apprenticeships are low-cost instruments to plug skills gaps, attract and retain talent, and bring fresh thinking into the firm — especially when young apprentices bring substantial amount of innate digital talent to companies with much older workers.”

The AfDB believes that a new focus on apprenticeships could help to redress “policy mistakes” such as when African governments merely encourage all businesses to train workers, whether or not they are in competitive industries. Not only are businesses in non-growth sectors not overly eager to undertake such training, but countries are less able to pair young Africans with available jobs and to foster entrepreneurship.

Implications for recruiters

There is a page in the AfDB paper that discusses the debate as to whether African students going abroad amounts to brain drain. Overall, the verdict is that study abroad can be good for developing countries if there is an effort to “harness remittances [i.e., monies channelled back into Africa through the incomes of foreign-educated Africans] and diaspora knowledge to build productive capacities in Africa.”

African countries must build these productive capacities very quickly – on par with the millions of new people entering their work forces every year. African education systems can adapt as per the Creating Decent Jobs paper, but there is going to be overflow demand on a fairly massive scale. Foreign institutions that do the work of really figuring out the African markets they are recruiting from – by conducting research into skills shortages, growth industries, and local education systems – will able to respond to specific and pressing demand, and to recruit more successfully as a result.

The AfDB’s paper offers valuable insight into the growing demand for employment-linked education in Africa and offers foreign institutions great insights related to the programmes and opportunities they can offer prospective African students.

For additional background, please see:



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