Experts call for modernising school curricula to match a rapidly changing labour market
By Raphael Obonyo
Many Africans with advanced qualifications are finding their university degrees are just not enough to land a job in the current market.
Ruth Rono graduated from Chuka University, Kenya, in 2015 with first-class honours. Without a job after many years of trying, Ms. Rono was forced to take menial jobs such as working on people’s farms.
Down south, Banji Robert bagged a bachelor’s degree in economics and mathematics from the University of Zambia in 2016 and would have gladly accepted an entry-level job in one of those fields. Two years later, without success, a frustrated Mr. Robert is now a cashier in a grocery store.
“It is not easy to pay bills, let alone start a family,” Mr. Robert, 25, told Africa Renewal. “The pressure is too much when you have education but no job.”
A graduate of development studies, Robert Sunday Ayo, 26, finds himself in a similar situation. “It is sad and very frustrating that it is not possible to find work, even with my kind of résumé,” he says regretfully, adding that he now drives a taxi in Abuja, Nigeria.
Africa Renewal interviewed dozens of young people across the continent who expressed dismay that their education is not propelling them toward their career aspirations.
One of the reasons for graduate unemployment is that “far too many youths across sub-Saharan Africa emerge from school without the basic skills to advance in their lives,” says Siddarth Chatterjee, the United Nations Resident Coordinator in Kenya. “It means there is something not working regarding investment in education.”
In general, some 60% of Africa’s unemployed are youth, according to the World Bank, and many are resorting to crime, radicalisation, or the often-perilous migration journey across the Mediterranean to Europe in search of greener pastures, says Mr. Chatterjee.
And because of increasing automation, the situation for graduates could worsen in the coming years.
According to the Accra-based African Center for Economic Transformation, a policy think tank, almost 50% of current university graduates in Africa do not get jobs.
The root cause of the problem is a mismatch between the education they are getting and labour market needs, maintains Sarah Anyang Agbor, the African Union (AU) Commissioner for Human Resources, Science and Technology.
Joseph Odunga, who has taught mathematics in Kenya and Botswana, agrees. “The lessons we used to teach in the 1990s are the same course content we are teaching today,” he says, implying that current education curricula for some subjects are outdated.
That view is shared by Ms. Agbor, who says that, “It is generally true that in most countries [in Africa], education systems have been geared toward getting a qualification rather than acquiring skills and competences that will enhance successful integration into the world of work.”
While some complain of the difficulty in finding a job, sectors such as construction, manufacturing, digital economy, transport, banking, medical care and engineering continue to need skilled candidates, says Anne-Elvire Esmel, a strategic communications officer with the AfroChampions Initiative, which promotes Africa’s homegrown companies.
The mismatch between labour market needs and the skills of many graduates in Africa is underscored by the Kenyan government’s recent launch of the “Competency-Based Curriculum,” which integrates digital technologies to teach students inclined toward information and communications technology the skills they’ll need to enter the digital apps industry that is expanding rapidly in the country.
Ms. Esmel would like countries to develop “more courses adapted to problem solving with regards to economic challenges, providing graduates with practical skills for the labour market and investing in STEM—sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics—which is not sufficiently done at present.”
Her organization proposes an Africa-focused infrastructure plan that uses local skills to implement projects.
“We have massive infrastructure needs and ought to provide opportunities to a huge young population over the next decade,” Ms. Esmel says. She stresses the need for competent artisans and technicians in the building and construction industry and in power and energy plants.
The snag, however, is that “technical vocational education and training [TVET] is stigmatized as a second-rate learning track, despite its capacity to promote the acquisition and development of entrepreneurial and innovative skills for self-employment,” laments Mr. Chatterjee.
With adequate allocation of resources, he says “modernizing teaching and learning facilities in TVET institutions, as well as training and continuous professional development of TVET teachers” will be possible.
Overall, sub-Saharan Africa spends 5% of its GDP on education. In 2015, in Incheon, South Korea, the World Education Forum adopted a declaration that requires countries to commit 4%–6% of their GDP or 15%–20% of their public expenditures to education. UNESCO organised the forum with support of other UN entities and the World Bank.
A recent report shows Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) and Senegal have met or surpassed the 6%-of-GDP target, while South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, Uganda and Madagascar, among others, spend less than 2.5% of their GDP on education.
Another concern is that a high proportion of education spending (an average of 85%) is recurrent, including 56% expended on wages.
Kenya’s former Cabinet Secretary for Education, Amina Mohammed, is less critical of Africa’s education systems, saying, “Most education systems have inbuilt skill development curricula. That is why over the years most African countries have developed human capital that is driving development agenda.”
In an interview with Africa Renewal, Ms. Mohammed said, “Unemployment itself is not a function of the education systems and skills alone. There are many other factors that lead to unemployment, ranging from sociopolitical stability, economic structures, and global dynamics, together with the general economic growth of the countries.”
Africa needs job creators
Ms. Mohammed suggests Africa mostly needs job creators—namely entrepreneurs. “We need African Silicon Valleys sprouting across the continent. Economies that thrive around the world are built on the foundation of an enabling environment for entrepreneurship to flourish.
“Global multinationals such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and WhatsApp employ hundreds of thousands of people, directly and indirectly,” adds Ms. Mohammed.
Many are looking forward to an African Continental Free Trade Area, a single pan-African market for goods and services expected to go into force in the coming months, which will enable skilled young Africans to move freely within markets in search of jobs.
Still, Aya Chebbi, the AU’s youth envoy, says that without the right skills, the youth may reap little from the continent’s economic integration. She echoes others calling for the continent’s education curricula to be updated to align with the current labour market.
Ms. Chebbi says young people can hone their entrepreneurial skills if they focus on science, technology, engineering, entrepreneurship and mathematics and have access to on-the-job training.
In December 2018, Morocco hosted the first African Forum on Vocational Training. The aim was to create a model of partnership among African countries to promote access to vocational training for youth. The forum signaled that African countries are attaching increasing importance to vocational training.
The private sector must complement governments’ efforts, advises Ms. Esmel.
Ms. Agbor agrees: “The private sector needs to be strongly linked to the education and training systems to meet labour market needs.” He encourages companies to offer young people apprenticeships, internships, mentorships and even skills certification programs.