How universities in Africa can build job skills for young people
This mini-report is based predominantly on publications from our African Education Research Database (AERD) to address how universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa can work with employers to increase employment for young people in Africa.
The paper was written by ESSA's Research Manager, Samuel Asare, and Director of Research and Insight, Pauline Essah.
The increasing rate of unemployment amongst young people in Africa is alarming and has sparked public conversations.
It is estimated that the youth population in Africa will double to over 830 million by 2050 (AFDB, 2015). This situation presents both opportunities and risks. If managed properly, for example by investing in the skills and knowledge of young people at scale, then the economic and social situation of Africa can be transformed (Gates Foundation, Goal Keepers Report, 2018). The problem is that most young people are marginalised economically, with limited employment opportunities (Olutuase et al., 2020).
Of Africa’s nearly 420 million young people aged 15-35, one-third are unemployed, another third are vulnerably employed, and only one in six is in wage employment. The problem is not just unemployment but underemployment (AFDB, 2015, p.1).
Using evidence mainly from the African Education Research Database (AERD), developed with the REAL Centre at the University of Cambridge, and other relevant and reliable sources, this short report addresses how universities and colleges in sub-Saharan Africa can work with employers to increase employment for young people in Africa.
Even though this report considers post-secondary education in general, most of the studies analysed addressed higher education, as there is limited work on areas such as technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in Africa (see Rose et al., 2019).
1.2 Recommendations for universities, colleges and employers
Universities, colleges and employers should collaborate to redesign their courses to meet the current needs of the job market. This needs to start with employers and professional agencies identifying skills required from graduates to be effective on the job. These should include both technical and general skills. The identified skills can be included in university and college courses and opportunities provided for students to develop them. Some of these opportunities may include group activities, presentations, field trips and internships. Detailed information is presented in sections 1.4.1 and 1.4.2.
Universities and colleges should include entrepreneurship training and digital innovation across different courses, this can support students with self-employment knowledge and skills. Entrepreneurship can be made a compulsory module at both undergraduate and graduate levels, taught by successful entrepreneurs. Funders and governments should increase financial support to students who develop realistic business ideas and assign mentors to support them. Detailed information is presented in sections 1.4.1 and 1.4.2.
Rather than setting up their own training institutions, employers should work with universities and colleges to strengthen existing programmes to meet employers needs. Further information is presented in section 1.4.2.
Education institutions should invest in creating career guidance and counselling centres to support students, especially the underprivileged. It’s important to periodically review these services for maximum benefits. Further information is presented in section 1.4.3.
Universities and Colleges in sub-Saharan Africa should ensure effective engagement between alumni networks and current students, to provide students with expert advice on many issues. See section 1.4.4 for further information.
Low employment opportunities can lead to unemployment among young people, which can increase their involvement in crime and organised violence and protests (Gough et al., 2013). In addition, unemployed young people are more likely to embark on journeys from Africa to seek better opportunities abroad, depriving Africa of its vital human resource for development (Amani, 2017). There are many factors causing the high levels of youth unemployment across Africa. For example, Amani (2017) mentioned the mismatch between available skills and job requirements, field of study, negative attitude towards Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), ineffective career guidance and counselling services, and low job market information.
Despite the challenges young people face in finding decent jobs, there is evidence across Africa of their determination, creativity and drive to create a better future for themselves and their families (Fuller & Kasumu, 2012). Young people’s skills need to be utilized to promote Africa’s development. The importance of investing in young people is acknowledged in policy discussions and documents. For example, the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development highlights Goal 8; the need for inclusive economic growth to enhance progress and provide decent jobs for all. In addition, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 places emphasis on the commitment of member nations to equip young people with skills to lead the socio-economic transformation of the continent.
1.4 Enhancing youth employment through universities and colleges
Scholars have different views about the role of universities and colleges in addressing youth unemployment. For example, in the view of Addae-Mensah (2016), the core mandate of universities is to train students to think critically and adapt to different situations, since society is dynamic and knowledge and skills can become obsolete. He argues that universities and colleges are not meant to produce ‘ready-made’ graduates for employers.
Even though his view is reasonable, there is a high expectation from education stakeholders, including parents, students, governments and employers for universities and colleges to ensure that students are equipped with the required knowledge and skills to prepare them for work (Pheko & Molefhe, 2017). Researchers have suggested four areas where educational institutions can make a difference, such as including employability skills in the university programmes, fostering closer collaboration with industries, providing effective career guidance counselling, and engaging with alumni networks (Ogbuanya & Chukuedo, 2017; Okolie et al., 2020).
1.4.1 Developing skills for work
The main concern of employers is that university graduates lack the relevant skills to be effective in the workplace (Dodoo & Kuupole, 2017). Employability is defined as the likelihood of graduates exhibiting attributes that employers find necessary for executing their duties in organisations (Okolie et al., 2019. There is no one universally accepted list of employability skills. Nonetheless, many researchers have proposed skills that demonstrate employability, for graduates, and have identified a list of basic employability skills (Pheko & Molefhe, 2017). The skills include communications, literacy and numeracy, team-working, problem-solving, general information technology, customer care, enterprising, and vocational job-specific (Dodoo & Kuupole, 2017; Martin et al., 2008). Consistent with other findings, students have doubts about their skills, indicating the need for universities and employers to provide information about how they can improve their chances of getting jobs (Pheko & Molefhe, 2017).
It is the responsibility of universities and colleges to create spaces for students to develop these skills. For instance, scholars propose a reform in courses to include problem-based learning, group work and class presentations. In Ethiopia and South Africa, Suzuki and Sakamaki (2020) reported that TVET and technical university students who took part in group research activities (or what they termed Kaizen), reported an increased level of communication, teamwork, and problem-solving skills. However, the challenge with these approaches is that they require smaller class sizes to be effective, which is lacking in African universities and colleges.
Similarly, at the University of Botswana, Moalosi et al. (2012) showed that problem-based learning (where students work in small groups on projects) developed students’ employability skills. For instance, students rated themselves as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ on the following attributes: self-directed, lifelong learning skills (81% of students), organisational and teamwork skills (81%), creative thinking skills (76%), communication skills (76%), entrepreneurship skills (76%), and critical thinking skills (71%).
Due to the low job opportunities created annually against the high number of graduates, there is an increasing need for universities and colleges to train students to be entrepreneurs (Ndedi, 2009). Entrepreneurship education is gradually being included in courses at universities and colleges. For instance, Olutuase et al. (2018) notes that entrepreneurship is a compulsory course in all universities, at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels across disciplines in Nigeria. This is a very important initiative for other countries to replicate.
Alternatively, universities and colleges can collaborate and develop free entrepreneurship online courses for students. For example, South Korea focused on Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to ensure mass participation in tertiary education and AUC/OECD (2021) has suggested adapting that model of digitisation of higher education delivery in Africa. The COVID-19 restrictions have provided opportunities for institutions in Africa to invest in ICT, encourage online and distance learning. ICT devices such as tablets, smartphones, and computers can be leveraged to facilitate such teaching and learning including entrepreneurship.
However, to be effective, scholars advise that entrepreneurship education should be provided within the context where students may work to ensure it is relevant, practical and highlights the available opportunities (Olutuase et al., 2020). Also, supportive environments should be created to facilitate ideas development, and students with realistic proposals should be provided with grants and appropriate mentorship programmes.
In recent times, TVET has been identified as a potential avenue for young people to develop skills to be self-employed, as well as better align their skills to community needs (Allais & Wedekind, 2020). Based on this position, African governments are demonstrating a commitment to improving access and quality of TVET. Under the Kenyan government’s Flagship Projects, 152 new TVET institutions have been built, increasing the total number from 41 in 2013 to 193. The government plans to build at least one institution per constituency. This has increased access to TVET with a student population of 145,405. Thirty-two of these institutions use modern equipment with teachers supported to undertake further training.
1.4.2 Collaboration with industry
Scholars argue that an important way for more graduates to get jobs is through a closer working relationship between universities and industry (Ishengoma, 2016). According to Okunuga and Ajeyalemi (2018), Nigerian graduates lack the relevant skills needed by employers, and this is largely due to a low level of cooperation between these two sectors. Closer and effective collaboration between these institutions could increase the relevant skills of graduates, to enable them to start new businesses and create jobs. According to Okolie et al. (2020), this collaboration promotes vocational education in university and college programmes, to facilitate job opportunities.
Employers input into the design and delivery of modules might address issues such as course content relevance, the provision of materials and ideas for student projects, formal membership of course advisory panels and guest lectures (Mason et al., 2009). There is evidence of such collaboration. For example, Ayarkwa et al. (2012) surveyed 120 organisations that provided work placement for industrial training in Ghana. They assessed the effectiveness of the project and reported a high potential for students to acquire new skills during the training, which could enhance their chances to find jobs after graduation. In addition, Gorlach (2019) reported collaboration between the Nelson Mandela University and Isuzu Motors in South Africa, where students work with the company to identify and address engineering problems.
Despite the benefits of such collaborations and evidence of commitment from stakeholders to work together, little has been achieved (Okunuga & Ajeyalemin, 2018). A survey conducted in Ghana (Sasu et al., 2020) suggests that employers prefer to establish their own training institutions rather than work with universities and colleges to design modules to produce graduates with relevant skills. This is due to the problems with these collaborations, such as ownership of the modules, issues around institutional autonomy, and differences in visions.
In addition to the problems, education provision is a profitable venture, especially when provided by employers, and graduates from such institutions are more likely to be employed by the provider. Therefore, although in Ghana there are universities and colleges that provide courses for the engineering and telecommunications industry, the Ghana Telecommunications Company has established its own training school, rather than working with existing institutions. The authors of this mini-report agree that ideally, the industry needs to enhance collaboration with education institutions to strengthen the quality of courses, rather than compete and replicate courses.
1.4.3 Strengthening career guidance and counselling services
For students, choosing a career is a very important and challenging stage, making guidance and counselling services important. Since people have different personalities, needs and interests, career guidance helps in matching students’ traits and needs with the available occupations (Amani, 2017). It is important for students to know that having an interest in a particular career is important but that without the required skills, little can be achieved. Therefore, any mismatch in this regard may lead to unemployment, lack of commitment, and dissatisfaction with the job (Okolie et al., 2020). On the contrary, students increase their chances of securing employment and being satisfied with their roles when there is a close match between their needs and abilities, and the desired career (Amani, 2017).
Pitan and Atiku (2017) explored the influence of career guidance and counselling services on students’ employability in selected universities in Nigeria and found that the greatest influence was opportunity awareness, followed by decision-making skills, and then transition learning skills.
Despite the general agreement among researchers on the importance of career choice, there is evidence that many students find it challenging to choose a career when they have limited career guidance and counselling services (Mbilinyi, 2012). This limits students’ understanding of themselves and the world of work. According to Biswalo (1996), many young people in Tanzania fail to make informed career choices due to inadequate career guidance and counselling services, leading to unemployment. Similarly, in South Africa, career advisors mentioned working from their independent offices due to a lack of career guidance centres in many institutions (Chireshe, 2012).
To address this problem, Amani and Sima (2015) proposed training of more professional career counsellors in higher education institutions. Also, career counselling centres need to be established and resourced adequately to guide students on various career-related matters, including labour market demands. In Ghana, Ashesi University has a platform – Resume Central – where students can upload their CVs for feedback. There is also an option for students to meet with a Career Peer Advisor to build and/or edit their CVs and job application letters.
1.4.4 Alumni networks
Alumni networks are important assets of any university or college. With the declining financial support from the state to educational institutions, alumni groups have been key targets of fundraising activities. The focus on funding in universities/colleges’ relationships with their alumni has limited exploring opportunities in other important areas. One of such areas is leveraging their alumni networks to facilitate students career development and transition into work (Chi et al., 2012). Generally, alumni networks do not include current students, which limits the many potential benefits.
As such, Chi et al. (2012) argued for alumni networks to bring aboard current students. Such a framework would provide students with access to the expert advice of alumni on many issues, including making appropriate course and career choices, overcoming challenges in their learning, internship/apprenticeship opportunities during their studies, as well as employment opportunities after graduation. Those alumni working in specific professions or industries can share relevant information on issues such as how to increase chances of securing a job in various fields, technical and professional expectations at work, and likely career path options (Campbell et al., 2020).
In addition, universities and colleges can support their alumni by organising programmes to enhance their employability and networks. For example, the African Leadership Academy (ALA) holds annual gatherings (Indabas) in North, East, West and Southern Africa, as well as in the USA. These gatherings help graduates to re-connect with one another, share ideas and experiences, and renew their focus on the African continent. During these events, ALA alumni participate in leadership development activities and collaborate on ventures and projects that impact the continent. For more information, please visit: African Leadership Academy.
Using evidence from education research published by Africans, as listed in the AERD (which has a wealth of information for decision-makers), this paper highlights the important role that universities and colleges have and should utilise effectively, to enhance the employability of the increasing number of young people in Africa. The authors acknowledge that it is challenging. However, emphasis is also placed on examples of evidence-based approaches and solutions such as redesigning university courses, providing entrepreneurship training, addressing the job-skills mismatch, and strengthening career guidance and counselling services. Universities and colleges could potentially adopt and implement these where feasible, to help overcome these major problems.
It is now necessary and urgent that such insights are used to ensure that the young people in Africa become and remain an asset, rather than a liability. This population in Africa provides a comparative advantage that must be turned into a competitive advantage too, for driving individual, national, continent-wide economic and social advancement. Such progress would not only benefit Africa but rather the world, now and in the future.
This paper is part of a series of mini-reports that are raising the profile of African education research published in our African Education Research Database. Previous papers - including one focusing on teacher training and another on the inclusion of young people with disabilities in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET), can be found here.
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