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Tackling Africa’s “Unemployable” Challenge

By Misan Rewane

Each year, hundreds of thousands of graduates join a growing pool of unemployed and often unemployable young men and women in Nigeria. It is the greatest challenge of our era: creating jobs for the largest segment of our population.

We know that the youth make up 65 percent of Africa’s population. What we, as a society, often forget is that they make up a higher percentage of the unemployed.

Creating jobs, promoting entrepreneurship, and advocating for more appropriate tertiary education are key solutions. But these are not enough.

None of these address an increasingly urgent problem: Africa’s “unemployable” youth. These are young people whose families have scraped and saved their meager income to invest in education with the hope of a better future. These are young people who have earned qualifications despite extreme hardship. But, these are also young people who are not “work-fit”. Many of them are ready to earn but not ready to work.

Employers, struggling in a slow economy, are reluctant to hire inexperienced staff. They don’t see the value that young people bring to the table so they are not willing to pay to hire such green staff.

What can our communities do to turn this around? Attempt to build a model that identifies unemployable yet motivated young people, and transforms them through training into job-ready, entry-level employees. On the demand side, working with employers to show them the value in hiring young people for their attitude and soft skills, and then providing the training for technical skills.

If Africa is going to create employment opportunities for young people then we need to recognize that education level or intelligence – or even being the smartest person in the room – is not enough. Attitude is critical, grounded in a willingness to learn and a drive to succeed.

Making young people work-ready entails training them in skills employers believe matter for workplace effectiveness. These skills include communication, problem-solving, time management, managing expectations, and teamwork. Young people are not learning these skills at the secondary and tertiary levels because our outdated curricula do not incorporate them and those extra-curricular activities that do cultivate these skills (after-school clubs, sports, etc.) are equally ignored as opportunities for skill-building.

And new employees must manage their expectations about the world of work. We know that our high rates of unemployment are matched with widespread vacancies because of a mismatch between skills possessed and skills required. Our challenge is to bridge this gap in order to connect unemployed youth to economic opportunities with employers or through entrepreneurship.

Finally, most organizations lack a mentoring process. Young people are thrown in the workplace with a “sink or swim” attitude. Many of them sink. Young people need support on their jobs with ongoing training and coaching to ensure they stay on the job for a sufficient amount of time to give them the necessary foundation of work experience to jumpstart their careers.

Clearly there are not enough jobs to absorb the 40+ million unemployed young people in West Africa alone, but this does not mean we cannot start with filling positions that do exist. The young workplace entrants of today are the potential employers and entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

Since WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education), a social venture in partnership with the Aspen Institute’s New Voices, launched its training programs two years ago, we have trained over 300 unemployed young people — two-thirds of whom don’t have a university degree. We have placed 70 percent of our alumni in entry-level jobs.

One thing they have all had in common is the willingness to learn and drive to succeed regardless of the obstacles thrown at them. They included people like Frank, who struggled with the challenge of being visually impaired but persevered through the training. Unable to see in dim lighting, Frank could not set out at dawn to head to the Academy in time for 8 a.m. classes. He also needed assistance getting home in the dark, as classes wouldn’t end till 6 p.m.

Frank cannot not read any print that isn’t magnified nor does he have any peripheral vision so following slides in class or participating fully in team activities was challenging. Yet Frank’s resourcefulness meant that he sought support from his classmates who would walk him to and from the bus stop when it was too dark for him to see. His self-motivation meant that he invested the additional hours required to catch up on content that he had struggled to follow in class.

Initially employers were reluctant to see beyond his disability but Frank was one of the first trainees in his cohort to get a job, working with tablet devices that could magnify print when he needed to access or enter data.

A year later, Frank works full time with WAVE, championing accessibility in the WAVE classroom as an in-house facilitator and ensuring that no one who is willing to learn gets left behind.

“Mr. Frank” (as he is now fondly called by his trainees) shows that our dream of reducing “unemployability” – and therefore unemployment – is possible with the right models: one dream, one person, one goal at a time.



Misan Rewane is co-founder and CEO of WAVE (West Africa Vocational Education) whose mission is to increase incomes for unemployed youth in West Africa by identifying, training and placing them in entry-level jobs in high-growth industries. She can be found on Twitter @misanrewane or @waveacademies, and is also an Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow (@AspenNewVoices). 

[Photo courtesy of WAVE]

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