Workforce Development in Africa: The Race of Our Lifetime
(Source: Africa Renewal)
Demographic indicators and predictions tell us that Africa’s population is bursting with the largest proportion of its people classified as youth. As technology adoption on the continent rises, low skilled labour at some point soon could be replaced by efficient machines, advanced robotics, AI and other emerging technologies. What does this mean for Africa’s workforce when sweeping changes are coming that will change the nature of work? Additionally, we are told that jobs of the future will require specific competencies and skills. The challenge of this century of predicted growth, “the African Century”, is producing a labour force that has the relevant skills for the future.
The outlook in Africa differs from the rest of the world, with the informal sector as the biggest employer and the majority of workers being low skilled and women and youth making up the bulk of the working poor across the continent. Africa’s labour force is not fully equipped for the upcoming technological advancements due to this low level of training in technical skills (Gandhi, 2017). Another reality on the continent is that the number of people that do not have primary education is still high, compounding the situation. The recent COVID-19 outbreak has once again shown us the vulnerability of unskilled workers in the informal sectors. The lack of safety nets such as employee benefits and steady income to fall back on are the distressing conditions that many workers face.
(Source: Brookings Institute)
While as I write decisions are being made to replace human capital to reduce costs and increase efficiency in both large to small and medium-sized enterprises, human capital is essential to the development of a nation in a similar proportion to that of technological capital. Even though technology is key to industrial growth, a skilled labour force remains key to unlocking prosperity and economic potential of any nation. Africa is steadily falling behind the rest of the world in terms of workforce development and preparing the labour force for the future because the basic education requirements have not yet been met and education systems of African countries facing many challenges (Gandhi, 2017). There is a gap between the skills that are being trained and the skills that are needed in the labour market which has led to some of the constraints we see in workforce development in Africa (WEF, 2019).
The big issues to address will be education and training to create human capital capabilities and to equip Africa’s labour force with skills needed for the predicted future of automation. Beyond that, we know that employment ensures the wellbeing of people and for Africa to follow their Asian countries and lift millions out of poverty, jobs are key. However, the changing nature of the economy will require that we put our focus on developing the right skills to create employment.
Workforce development is exacerbated by income inequalities.
The education system of a country is the heart of workforce development. Rich nations provide citizens with free education for most of their lives through state funding, furthermore, education is relatively more costly as a proportion of the GDP per capita in developing countries. Countries in Africa spend, up to 30% of GDP per person in Togo, while developed nations only spend 5% of their GDP per capita on education (UIS, 2017). In the long run, investment in education not only has a pay off in social development but increases economic returns. The economic returns for higher education graduates are the highest in the entire educational system — an estimated 17 per cent increase in earnings as compared with 10 per cent for primary and 7 per cent for secondary education (World Bank, 2017).
In Ghana, households spend about $87 annually per child in primary education, while this figure increases to $151 in Côte d’Ivoire. Household spending per student reaches $228 a year in Ghana and $637 in Côte d’Ivoire (UIS, 2017). Many African countries have not yet removed school fees levies for primary school education, and the burden of paying for school fees remains largely on African households. In which case, the development of a social state in Africa that provides free education is the proverbial dream come true of national development. In the absence of this, we have to rely on organisations outside of the public sector to award children the right to education which has been so unaffordable to them.
We know that the biggest determinant of educational attainment is household income and for millions of Africans, household income falls into the category of extreme poverty. In such a situation it is difficult to make education equitable and lead to increased inequalities in access to education. The few that are able to make it to higher education and get the skills that will be in high demand over the next coming decades will raise their incomes while the majority of the population will remain low skilled and unable to thrive in the competitive labour market. While the informal sector helps families in the lowest income brackets to sustain themselves, these jobs as we have seen are vulnerable to many shocks. Vulnerable employment is often characterized by inadequate earnings, low productivity and difficult conditions of work that undermine workers’ fundamental rights (UN Women) Increased income inequalities due to the disproportional access to education and training for the workers in African countries will arise as a result.
(Source: World Bank)
Access to education is a human right for all people and as put forth by the international development agenda; education should be made free until a child is of employment age. Depriving millions of people of getting an education that is in itself a violation of basic human rights (Tomaševski, 2008). Recently, this target has been taken a step further to increase the availability of lifelong learning opportunities. SDG 4 defends inclusive and equitable quality education and promotes permanent learning opportunities for all.
Engaging stakeholders and possibilities for financing
You’ve heard before, what seems to be a familiar adage by now, Africa is seated on a demographic miracle and a competitive advantage in terms of the human capital. It is clear that there is a need for a differentiated approach to tackling the issue of workforce development. While we can recommend that governments in Africa offer free public education, many countries are not in a position to do so and it will take time to reach that goal. As we have already seen, African households currently bear the cost of educating the continent’s workforce which we have already seen leaves the poorest of the population who can not afford educational opportunities out of the equation and out of the future.
If we do not take advantage of the demographic miracle to develop our labour force with the right skills, we will have lost the race of our lifetime. The challenge for several stakeholders including government, development agencies, philanthropists and “well-wishers” within the social enterprise space is creating opportunities for skills development opportunities for low-income earners at low cost. Some entrepreneurial solutions to workforce development include Andela which uses a learn as you earn model. Overall, governments need to invest in expanding educational opportunities for citizens to reap the multiplier effect on income and wealth that comes with having a skilled labour force.
Calderon, C., Kambou, G., Kubota, M., Korman, V. and Cantu Canales, C., 2019. Africa’s Pulse: An Analysis Of Issues Shaping Africa’S Economic Future. 20th ed. World Bank, p.39.
Gandhi, D., 2017. Figures Of The Week: Workforce Training And Skills Constraints In Sub-Saharan Africa. [online] Brookings. Available at: <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2017/10/19/figures-of-the-week-workforce-training-and-skills-constraints-in-sub-saharan-africa/> [Accessed 4 May 2020].
Shango, D., 2019. Why The Skills Gap Remains Wider In Africa. [online] World Economic Forum. Available at: <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/09/why-the-skills-gap-remains-wider-in-africa/> [Accessed 4 May 2020].
Sow, M., 2018. Figures Of The Week: Informal Employment In African Cities. [online] Brookings. Available at: <https://www.brookings.edu/blog/africa-in-focus/2018/06/01/figures-of-the-week-informal-employment-in-african-cities/>
Tomaševski, K. (2008). The State of the Right to Education Worldwide: Free or Fee?:: 2006 Global Report. In Power, Pedagogy and Praxis (pp. 19-53). Brill Sense.
World Bank. 2017. Tertiary Education. [online] Available at: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/tertiaryeducation > [Accessed May 2020].
World Bank. 2019. The Future Of Work In Africa: The Roles Of Skills, Informality, And Social Protection In Unleashing The Promise Of Digital Technologies For All. [online] Available at: <https://www.worldbank.org/en/region/afr/publication/africa-future-of-work > [Accessed 4 May 2020].
Uis.unesco.org. 2020. Education Data Release: New Indicators And More Data For Countries In Every Region | UNESCO UIS. [online] Available at: <http://uis.unesco.org/en/news/education-data-release-new-indicators-and-more-data-countries-every-region > [Accessed 4 May 2020].