Understanding youth, unemployment and skills in Africa

by Denielle Sachs
McKinsey Social Sector Office

For those working on employment issues, one thing is clear: the tense imbalance between the demands of the labor market and the supply of appropriately skilled workers is reaching its breaking point. Last week, the McKinsey Global Institute launched, The world at work: jobs and skills for 3.5 billion people. The report found that by 2020 there could be as many as 40 million too few high-skill workers and up to 95 million too many low-skill workers out in the job market.
Avoiding such massive imbalances will require a radical approach to accelerate education and skills building, and to boost job creation for less-skilled workers. Anything less and we will see a growing shortage of high-skill workers, persistent joblessness for many low- and middle-skill workers, rising income inequality, and distressingly high rates of youth unemployment. The numbers are clear: by 2030, the world will have as many as 1 billion workers without even secondary education, and most of them will be living in India, South Asia and Africa.

A lot of institutions are looking at these issues , including OECD and their recently launched Skills Strategy. As part of our ongoing research on youth unemployment and the skills-jobs mismatch, we asked a few experts what a solution might look like for young people in Africa where the under 25 represent three-fifths of sub-Saharan Africa’s unemployed population, and 72 percent of the youth population lives on less than $2 a day.

First, we have to understand who we mean when we talk about the young and out-of-work in Africa. Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, tells us that, on average, she is an 18-year-old girl, living in a rural area, literate but not attending school. To his mind, entrepreneurship – both the technical skills and the mindset — is the answer. It should be an integral part of every child’s education whether that schooling be formal or informal.

 For the Chief Economist for the World Bank’s Africa Region Shantayanan Devarajan, the answer lies in productivity. “The challenge of youth employment in Africa is not just to create more wage and salary jobs but to increase the productivity, and hence earnings, of the majority of young people.” This can only happen by “first, increasing their basic skills, which they can take with them when they move to new enterprises; and second, creating jobs in the formal sector by improving the economy’s competitiveness, so that this sector can absorb more qualified workers into a productive workforce.”

In South Africa, a very specific socio-political context post-apartheid, Thero Setiloane, CEO of the Business Leadership South Africa, explains that access to education and the quality of that education (“Only 35 percent of the children in third grade are able to pass the literacy and numeracy tests.”) are major stumbling blocks. His preference is for a joint government-business solution. “Business must work with government to adapt the school curriculum… so that young people leave school ready for work. Training programs must be tailored to demand…We also need to build in incentives for businesses to address the social-capital deficit in poor communities.”

Moataz Al Alfi, CEO of the Egypt Kuwait Holding Company could not agree more. Coming from the Middle East where the “paradox of the labour markets”, as he calls it, is perhaps at its worst, he calls for “a solution that requires a strong partnership between business, with its urgent need for skilled workers, and government, which is charged with educating young people.” The region currently has the highest youth unemployment rate in the world, at 25 percent. And, on the heels of the Arab Spring, and in the midst of the lingering economic crisis, it is only expected to rise.  He too returns to the issue of a failing education system that does not prepare young people for the jobs that the market desperately needs to fill.


Join the debate and register for our online panel event on June 26th at 8am EDT //2pm CEST , featuring experts from the OECD and IFC
See also: OECD Skills Strategy

Visit our interactive portal on skills: http://skills.oecd.org
OECD Development Centre

Photo credit: African youth / Shutterstock

Leave a Reply