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Tackling youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa

Creating decent jobs for a rapidly expanding young African labour force

Within the next 15 years, some 375 million young people will become of working age in Africa, equivalent to the current population of Canada and the United States combined. By 2050, nearly one in three young people will be living in sub-Saharan Africa, and most of them simply cannot afford not to work.

Comment | 18 August 2017
Bruno Losch
ILO News talked to Bruno Losch, Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Governance Innovation (GovInn), at the University of Western Cape, South Africa, and lead political economist at Cirad (Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement) about the youth employment challenge in sub-Saharan Africa. Losch is the author of two International Labour Organization publications on the subject and spoke at an ILO seminar in June.

ILO News: Could you outline some of the main obstacles facing this rapidly expanding young workforce?

A major problem is that 80 to 90 per cent of the labor force in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is still engaged in informal activities – a result of structural challenges including limited economic transformation in most countries in the region. The major part of the work force is in agriculture, which accounts for around 60 per cent of the total economically active population, and in household enterprises. Formal wage work is limited and mainly concerns services, while manufacturing represents less than 5 per cent.

The narrow absorption capacity of the growing labour force in these not quite diversified economies is a major issue. For the next two decades, household enterprises and agriculture will continue to play a major role in the SSA region. Today, they generally provide unstable and low earnings, and no or limited access to social protection. The challenge is to make family farms, informal off-farm activities and household enterprises more productive and profitable in order to enhance job quality and create more employment opportunities.

ILO News: How central is skills development, education reform and labour market training in sub-Saharan Africa for the jobs of the future?

These are critical issues for governments in the region. One of the priorities is indeed to reinvest seriously in basic education. First, nearly 20 per cent of children of primary school age are out of school in SSA and the literacy rate for youth is 75 per cent (2015), way behind other regions. Then, most countries are also clearly lagging for secondary education. In East and South-East Asian countries, for example, 70 to 80 per cent of 15 to 24 year-olds have completed lower secondary school, while the proportion is around 20 to 35 per cent in SSA.

And the situation is even worse in rural areas, which remain the most populated in Africa. The gap between rural Asia and SSA is 65 per cent to less than 10 per cent.  Another priority would be to develop innovative training and skills development schemes that better align young job seekers’ profiles with the needs of local labour markets, instead of adopting imported one-size-fits-all programs. Anticipating the needs of tomorrow is also essential, as the world of work is rapidly changing and new skills will be on demand.

ILO News: What economic and social policies are needed in order to provide sustainable, quality jobs for youth?

There are no silver bullets, whilst a major mistake would be to address youth in isolation and to focus on specific policies for youth only.  Though there are youth-specific factors - notably in terms of access to labour markets and employment conditions - young people are not located on an island; they are part of the overall economy and society. In this respect, structural transformation through economic diversification and skills improvement can be a major driver for youth employment and accessing decent jobs.

Another challenge is that public policies are often very sectorial and specialized, which creates an artificial segmentation while policy integration should be pursued. Youth employment will stem from a process of change driven by development strategies which enhance the articulation of interventions at the local, regional and national levels.

ILO News: How key is economic diversification and structural reform, particularly in the agricultural sector, in addressing youth unemployment and underemployment in the region?

Economic diversification, productive investment and skills development are key and must be facilitated by improved governance. This is central to structural reform. Diversification is also a strong driver of change at the sectorial level. In agriculture, for example, moving from staple crops to high value and processed products combined with productivity improvement can radically change job requirements, the level of returns and the quality of employment. The role of technology should not be underestimated. As an example, while necessary for increasing productivity and improving the quality of jobs, the adoption of highly powered motorization on large farms can lead to job destruction and negative net employment effects, if not accompanied by growth in other sectors. The use of appropriate technologies (i.e. appropriate to the structural context) which favour employment, the management of natural resources and low carbon foot prints need to be considered. The youth can strongly contribute to the Sustainable Development Goalsand to action against climate change in this context.