Youth work: connecting education and opportunity

With Africa’s youth facing an unemployment crisis, youth work is key to creating the connection between education, employment and opportunity.

Africa faces an employment crisis. The region’s rapid growth rate has outperformed the rest of the world over the past decade, but still fails to create productive employment for all. With the largest concentration of young people this challenge is particularly intense. The African Development Bank predicts that 50% of Sub-Saharan African youth will face unemployment by 2025. Yet, African employers still report struggling to find workers with the right skills.

In fact, 87% of African business leaders expressed concern about skills availability in a 2019 study. Skills like sense making and social intelligence are in demand from employers. Firms value work-readiness skills as complements to technical expertise. These skills mean that graduates are adaptable to change and prepared for the threat of digital replacement. Likewise, students need soft skills to close the gap between ability and opportunity.

Solving the youth unemployment crisis

Recognising the value of skills beyond reading and writing is only the first step towards improving the employment potential of African youth. It is clear there is strong demand for work-readiness skills in graduates. But, it is also accepted that these skills are vague, difficult to train and even harder to measure. There are two potential solutions to this challenge. We can integrate work-readiness training into traditional education. Or, rely on external programmes to provide the opportunity.

At a high school in Kigali, Rwanda, students visit local businesses to expand their learning from the classroom to the workplace through the Akazi Kanoze Access work readiness programme. Students work in groups, doing role plays and scenarios to strengthen communication and develop the soft skills required in a job. Notably, the programme’s most successful students are female. Young women who took the classes are 12% more likely to find jobs than young women who did not.

Yet, Akazi Kanoze is one of the few examples of work-readiness training succeeding in a classroom setting. African education systems remain focused on teaching basics like literacy and numeracy. These basic skills are not at the standard where governments can commit resources to pursue broader training. Any efforts to put in place these kinds of programmes in schools also risk deepening class divides. Students at better schools are likely to gain access to better opportunities. Meaning they will end up ahead in the already unequal race to future success.

Opportunities for growth outside the classroom

Given the challenges of reforming Africa’s schooling system, we turn to the alternative options beyond the classroom. Although unfamiliar, the most promising programmes that equip students for employment replicate the work environment. For young people, youth work and vocational training offer these opportunities. They overcome the education system’s resource constraints and provide unique opportunities.

WONDER works with Tewa, a hospitality training programme, to prepare women in Kilifi to work in the local hospitality industry. The Kilifi District is one of the poorest in Kenya and only 48% of girls move into secondary education. This makes the transition from school to formal employment challenging and disconnected.

By equipping women with technical skills, Tewa can better prepare them for integration into the job market. Even for woman who can access education, power structures and ingrained norms in schools can prevent them from taking advantage of opportunities for personal development. The school environment is often male dominated, with fewer opportunities for women resulting in poorer employment and life outcomes.

Formal education should still be a priority. But, because of these barriers, there should also be focus on learning outside the classroom. Replicating the unfamiliar workplace setting is crucial in building women’s adaptability. Additionally, youth work provides the space for young people to form professional networks beyond their familiar circle.

What next?

WONDER’s Project GROW is working to improve the quality and recognition of youth work. But, for programmes to gain traction and support, we need to start by recognising the value of youth work for tangible outcomes. Currently, it receives little recognition and even less government support in Africa. The large knowledge gaps on youth work, with little available studies or discussions of best practice, leaves us with some important questions.

How can we measure and track youth work’s impact to prove it is a worthy investment? How can we tie in youth work to other government/third-sector programmes to support women’s independence in every aspect of their life? How can we get employers’ input to ensure tangible employment outcomes? How do we get women to engage in youth work with pride and accomplishment?

Finding answers is critical. The African youth of today will face an historical period of transition. This means youth work will only become more important in creating the critical connection between education, employment and future opportunity.

Author: Grace Joel, Project GROW volunteer

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