Youth employment and upskilling is the pulse of economic growth in the Middle East and Africa (MEA). However, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 30% of the youth in MEA will be unemployed by 2018. The ILO also estimates that halving youth unemployment in MEA could bring nearly 25 billion dollars to the region by 2018. According to the World Bank, MEA economies will need to create 40 million jobs in the decade between 2010 and 2020 to meet employment demands.
That’s a tall order – but there are ways to turn this situation around.
Career guidance is key
Effective career guidance can be the key to youth choosing to develop the skills or pursue the qualifications required to find employment. However, this is something which is remarkably lacking in the region. Disadvantaged youth don’t have access to role models or a strong institutional setting to give them the guidance they need. Academic institutions are often not aligned with the private sector. Young women are often not inspired or encouraged to succeed in a technologically-driven world. This makes it difficult for youth to work out what to study in order to make themselves employable.
In addition, the ministries of education and labour need to align closely when it comes to matching the demand for skills in the working world to what is being studied at school and university level.
Studying the right thing
Many young people feel pressure to pursue a specific qualification because of its associated prestige. There is certainly merit in attending university and obtaining a degree, but it is equally important that qualifications match up to industry demand. It is sometimes the case that there is more demand for people with vocational skills, who can immediately find themselves in satisfying and well-paid careers. It’s about choosing and having the means to acquire the right skills-set and access to proper career guidance. A vocational career also lends itself to being an entrepreneur, which leads to future employment of others.
Don’t overlook soft skills
When speaking about a skills shortage, the problem lies not only in a lack of 21st century technology skills, but the softer skills required to land and hold down a job. Often, where youth have the opportunity for education, they gain theoretical knowledge but lack the practical skills to add value and to the workplace. A lot more needs to be done to develop students’ soft skills including: putting together a CV, preparing for an interview and business etiquette.
Growing the knowledge economy to boost skills
Governments also need to ensure that there is a growing ICT sector and knowledge economy to stimulate growth in job-rich sectors like manufacturing and services. The public sector must lead by creating a favourable regulatory environment for investment in ICT and new technology. Just having access to the internet can change a young person’s life through online learning resources and platforms with which to start a business or develop an idea. Mobile phones are already ubiquitous across the region, but youth must be encouraged to use them for productive activities.
According to the IDC, government policies and relevant processes that favour ICT will have a significant impact in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda, and Egypt.
Not that difficult to make an impact
These issues are easier to address than one might think. Along with the public sector working on its ICT policies, private sector companies, such as Microsoft, have the power to provide greater career guidance and skills development, and communicate with the education ministries to ensure there’s an accurate reflection of the job market. By combining resources, companies can make a bigger impact on growing the entire talent pool through integration of different skills programmes across sectors and disciplines, providing mentorship and online assessments.
In fact, the old formula of state-led, labour intensive job creation is becoming more and more obsolete with not enough resources to create a sufficient number of jobs. Simultaneously, with rapid developments in the IT sector, the way we work globally is changing, which has the potential to sweep MEA and other emerging markets moving forward.
How do these developments affect the workforce? Certainly they open up direct job opportunities, but beyond this they are a means of opening up opportunities for business process outsourcing, and for people to gain skills and knowledge online and through virtual mentorships.
Microsoft’s Employability Platform, an online employment hub in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, Ghana and the Middle East region, is an example of this. The portal provides relevant courses to develop professional skills, connects youth to career opportunities via a job search function as well as expands skills by connecting job-seekers to professional youth mentors. Given its nature as an online-based, portable, adaptable and transferable platform, it is no surprise that it has already placed 69,000 youth across the Middle East and Africa in well-paying, satisfying careers.
Higher youth employment in MEA can be a reality
It is initiatives like this, tapping into the world of ICT, that the MEA region requires to upskill its youth and find new avenues of employment. If we can combine this with empowering young job seekers and entrepreneurs with career guidance and relevant skills needed for today’s workplace and entrepreneurial environment, we may just have an enormous and real potential to make a very real impact on creating employment in the region.
By Jeffrey Avina, Director, Citizenship and Community Affairs, Microsoft Middle East and Africa.