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Africa’s Growing Unemployment: What Can We Do?

It is no secret that many youth migrants from Africa migrate simply for economic reasons – the desire to find a conducive environment where the skills and knowledge gained through their formal tertiary education can be put to effective use. I have heard many people complain about how these youths are inconsiderate and unwilling to build their nations, how they are contributing to Africa’s brain drain and how they are the reason Africa lags behind in terms of innovation. Well, the question we should be asking is:

“Are there opportunities for them here?”

In June 2017, Stats SA released the much-dreaded numbers regarding unemployment in South Africa. The report stated that 55.9% of South Africa’s youth are unemployed. In 2015, McKinsey and Co reported that 50% of youths in Nigeria are unemployed. These are Africa’s two biggest economies, Africa’s power hubs, the core of Africa’s innovative potential… yet the numbers tell a different story. This, of course, raises another question:

“What needs to change?”

I have lived in Africa all my life. I have spent years observing the education and employment trends even though I am a ‘Scigineer’ – (Check the meaning of that here), so I know Africa well enough to write this article.

There are two reasons I believe the calf of unemployment continues to fatten itself at the detriment of Africa’s youths

  • The current education system does not prepare youths for the employment market.
  • The current mode of employment does not utilize the right techniques to identify the right skills.

I’ll address the first reason briefly.

With the recent wave of technology and interdisciplinary degrees, Africa still seems tied to a traditional approach to education where it is difficult to mix a business degree with natural sciences or understand basics like the relationship between science and engineering. Our education system is rather exclusive, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We still believe that our educational rivers should not have tributaries. You have to stick to one path and see it through to the end. Lord help you if that path is not in high demand or well recognized in Africa, you may find yourself dispassionately walking a different path an employer is merciful enough to give you, or you may feel compelled to leave – because your skills are just not, and will not at any point be appreciated.

Then there are those who have pursued educational rivers and their tributaries; those who have gained an in-depth understanding of how two worlds can marry and birth valuable skills and possibilities. These individuals abound in Africa in spite of the traditional education approach; however, they are not so abundant in the workplace – at least not in South Africa where I live.

You see, in South Africa, you are what you studied at the undergraduate level and nothing more (except for business consulting firms where your degree matters less than your ability to solve the case study problems at the assessment stage of the recruitment process). It does not matter if you have perfectly married science and engineering, consulting firms will indicate that they want an engineer for that position you have the skills and knowledge for. It does not matter if you studied science and then pursued a postgraduate degree in business, it just will not sit right with that person at HR who can’t understand how you can be a business consultant when you did not study financial accounting and investments.

And this right here is the second reason unemployment is becoming a daily moisturizer our skins are getting used to. It is the reason Africa’s brains leave. It is the reason Africa’s youths are forced to start their own businesses, not out of passion (else we will be on top of the charts with innovation), but out of the need to survive. And indeed they do just that. They survive and few thrive. But many die in their hearts with dreams unrealized, dying with the knowledge they possess and the skills they can hone if given a chance with the right platform.

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I guess at this point you are asking “what should we do?”

I’ll tell you what I think.

We must change our approach to both education and employment recruitment. It sounds like a messy process but it is a necessary one. It is time for us to catch up with the rest of the world. And I believe we can catch up if we re-program our psyche where education and recruitment are concerned.

I believe the time has come for us to create a four-year Bachelor’s degree that encompasses all the skills and knowledge necessary to survive in any work environment in Africa. The brain is capable of assimilating many things and creating relationships between them, and we need to start building on that.

It may be time to have that four-year program where students can learn business analytics in one semester and operations management the next. Then they could take a ride down to water treatment design (you know, because we need more experts on that), and stop by climate change data analysis and disaster management systems. They could go to the humanities department to understand how everything affects everyone and perhaps converge in economics to learn about production, consumption and the transfer of wealth… They could learn so much and go on specialize in what they are passionate about after the four-year cycle in a postgraduate degree.

This is a possibility. Pause and think about it. It is unconventional, but with 55.9% unemployment even though jobs are constantly re-advertised, unconventional is exactly what we need.

Maybe, just maybe our unconventionality should be applied more in employment recruitment procedures. Besides specialist degrees like medicine, pharmacy and studies that deal with human health or are not teachable in the workplace, employers may need to start considering a wider spectrum of ‘teachable applicants’ for their employee needs (‘teachable’ being the keyword). Must have a degree in treatment plant design? There is a short course for that. It takes two weeks. Must have a degree in investments? There are workplace mentors for that. Must have a microbiology degree to be a lab assistant who prepares media for senior microbiologists? It takes less than three hours to teach a high school graduate the necessities of that. We need to change.

Our attachment to specific degrees is the reason some degrees are considered useless at the end of four years and others are the only ones who thrive. Take a moment to consider how science thrives in comparison to finance degrees in Africa and you will get the picture. It may also lead you to the reason we lack in innovation, but that is a discussion for another day.

The point is we are throwing away skills because we are too attached to a design from the HR perspective. Perhaps, employers need to start employing applicable case examinations and strengths tests to determine individual capability. I was interviewed by Mace South Africa when I concluded my Masters degree, and I was greatly impressed by the nature of the assessments – problem-solving and presentations, interviews to understand character much more than understand if you remember Avogrado’s law… no strengths tests…but an impressive process nonetheless (Must go get that PMP certification and reapply there 😉

In the end, it is not a university degree that determines capability. It is not even the IQ that determines if a person will be great at their job. Like Angela Lee Duckworth highlighted in her Ted talk, it is the grit a person has, the resilience with which they stick to what they do in spite of adversity that makes them successful at what they do.

Thank you for reading. Please share your thoughts.

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Demilade Fayemiwo is a research officer based in South Africa.

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Written by PH

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