Here’s a set of data that may vex you. According to UNESCO, the adult literacy rate (15 years and older) for Sub-Saharan Africa was 65% in 2016, while it was 99% in the European Union and 96% in East Asia and Asia Pacific. Presently, of the 11 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates, ten are in Africa. 17 countries in Africa have literacy rates of 50% and below¹.
As appalling as these figures are, they aren’t as alarming as the following statistics. There were over 226 million 15-to-24 years old in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2015 and this segment is projected to increase 42% by 2030². According to the World Bank, youths account for 60% of all Africa’s jobless and in some countries this number is much higher³.
Let’s not forget underemployment, which is endemic among the African youth. It’s not unusual to see a young educated woman who holds a bachelor’s degree but is serving beer in a neighborhood bar or hawking fruits in the streets. It’s routine to see an educated young man selling shoes in a thrift market or dispensing fuel at a gas station.
Why are those numbers more alarming?
Enrollment rates (excluding dropouts) are on a surge in Africa and literacy rates have risen during the past two decades. While the data illustrated below is not acceptable, it still portrays a net progress from prior years.
Evidently, there’s been a noticeable focus in getting Africans educated, but the evolution in education hasn’t necessarily translated into tangible employment gains for people, as we can note from current employment data presented above. Unemployment and underemployment represent severe challenges for the African youth, but they also have an adverse impact on the continent’s economy.
In an economy, when 60% of unemployed people are between 15 to 24 years old, this is a loss of labor productivity which in turn is the main driver of economic growth. Also, a big unemployed youth population has many consequences including an increased risk of illicit activities and radicalism.
What explains this gap between education reform and unemployment?
There are many factors that explain the persistent unemployment rates in Africa despite the improvement in literacy rates. One is the inadequate policies that promote job-seeking in civil service to the detriment of the private sector or the entrepreneurship route. Also, many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t have a private sector that’s robust enough to absorb the huge employment demand of their populations. Another factor is the problematic of the unemployability of Africans and it is the focus of this article.
How can it be that Africans are unemployable?
Being unemployable is defined as lacking the skills and knowledge for a gainful and lasting employment. Many young Africans who enter the labor market after completing university aren’t adequately skilled and they find themselves in this cohort.
It appears that stakeholders are putting more effort into increasing the headcount of students in schools, especially in primary school, than in ensuring they obtain a quality education that prepares them for a job. Hence, it’s common place for a job applicant who has earned a graduate diploma in information technology for example, to be of little utility in a work environment.
When you attempt to unravel this discrepancy in education and job attainment, you discover that among other reasons, teachers aren’t always qualified to teach anyone. In a 2013 video that went viral, Adams Oshiomhole, a Nigerian governor at the time, asked a primary school teacher to read an affidavit that she presented as part of her credentials. She struggled to read the document, and everyone wondered what she has been teaching students during the past 20 years of her career.
Here is an excerpt of the video. Most people were entertained by the distressed teacher. Hopefully after the laughter, people realize how troubling it is that Africa is relying on teachers like her to perform an education miracle.
Let’s also remember that Africa’s increasing interconnectedness with the rest of the world puts more pressure on its people to rapidly gain skills that make them capable of competing in a global environment.
Vocational education: an effective solution to unemployment
The challenges the education sector face in Africa are intricate, so the investments being made will eventually bear fruits. But, this may take time and while we wait, 12 million young people will enter the job market every year for the next decade⁴. Clearly, stakeholders must identify ancillary measures to enable the countries to absorb the youth bulge that’s imminent on the continent.
Vocational education is a great complement (not a substitute) to higher learning, particularly in these times when many African countries aspire to become emerging markets. If properly administered, it is less costly than higher-level education, it equips students with the specialized skills that employers seek, and it is perhaps more inclusive. Regrettably, it’s not getting the attention it warrants.
How is vocational education more adapted to Sub-Saharan Africa?
First, many countries in the region have populations that live below the poverty line. As of 2015, 41% of people in the region live on less than $1.90 per day.
Recall that depending on the country, it takes an average of 3 to 4 years to complete a bachelor’s degree. With the poverty level illustrated above, it’s not unusual to see many high school graduates who are unable to attend university because parents don’t have the funds to support them for that long.
Even in countries where the government subsidizes tuition, additional expenses such as transportation and books, put a strain on parents who are already poor. Vocational programs generally have a shorter duration, enabling parents to save money.
Furthermore, many countries in the region have elaborated national development plans that will hopefully enable them to become emerging markets. These development plans are anchored on sectors such as infrastructure and manufacturing. These sectors however require many highly skilled blue-collar jobs that vocational programs provide. It’s a win-win situation because the development goals can be met and unemployment can be reduced.
Vocational Education and Training (VET) programs in Germany as a model
Fortunately, many countries have succeeded in implementing VET and Sub-Saharan African countries can adopt their model to combat unemployment. Countries such as Japan, Germany, and China, have successfully implemented vocational programs to enable them to provide skilled labor to manufacturing and industrial companies.
Germany is a particularly good example because a significant segment of its labor force has gone through a VET. In 2016, 47.2% of the German population held a vocational qualification and 1.3 million students were enrolled in VET programs in 2015⁵.
How does VET work in Germany?
After completing the first or second year of high school, students enroll into a VET program which can last from 2 to 4 years depending on the type of specialization. The dual-track VET has two components: classroom education and on-the-job training in a firm. Students spend about 40% of their time in the classroom learning theory. The other 60% is in the workplace under a professional.
The program is efficient because the companies that will eventually hire students are involved in teaching them the skills that they need. This increases the likelihood of them obtaining a job after they graduate because there’s a demand for their skill. They also obtain some orientation in other areas such as economics, English and any other topic as they relate to their occupation. This is important in helping them to have some mobility in their career.
Some countries and firms have been experimenting with VET in Africa
Some countries such as Kenya and Rwanda run VET, but it still constitutes a very minimal part of their education system and they’re not properly administered. There are also firms in Africa that have taken the lead in VET. An ideal example is Dangote Industries. In 2010, the company established the Dangote Academy to train employees and future candidates for the group. Most end up working with the firm, but those who don’t gain highly desirable skills for the job market.
VET is not a panacea to Africa’s unemployment issue
Getting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is a complex task that require a multifaceted approach, and a single solution cannot solve it. Therefore, assimilating VET into Africa’s education system isn’t going to miraculously solve the unemployment headache that the continent has been facing for too long.
What it will do however, is provide stable and highly skilled jobs for Africans so that they can earn a dignified living. But, governments must be diligent in regulating the programs and they must also create the optimal conditions for the private sector to flourish so that the demand for jobs can be much higher than it currently is.
Remember this: Africa’s youth will soon increase by 42% and so far, many of them are still unemployed. It’s a ticking time bomb that can be disarmed.
: UNESCO. (September 2017). Literacy Rates Continue to Rise from One Generation to the Next http://uis.unesco.org/sites/default/files/documents/fs45-literacy-rates-continue-rise-generation-to-next-en-2017_0.pdf
: African Development Bank. (2018). African Economic Outlook 2008 https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Documents/Publications/African_Economic_Outlook_2018_-_EN.pdf
: African Development Bank: (March 2006). Catalyzing Youth Opportunity Across Africa https://www.afdb.org/fileadmin/uploads/afdb/Images/high_5s/Job_youth_Africa_Job_youth_Africa.pdf
: Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training: https://www.refernet.de/dokumente/pdf/VET%20Data%20Report%20Germany%202016_2017_bf.pdf