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Four points to inform successful youth employment strategies

Insights from our work highlights common issues for those working on Africa’s youth employment challenge – and raises vital questions for more effective policies and programming.

Addressing Africa’s youth employment challenge is a major development imperative. Youth are central to unlocking the development potential of low- and middle-income countries and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Africa has the youngest population in the world, with 70% of sub-Saharan Africa under the age of 30. Providing African youth with the right education and supporting entrepreneurship and employment opportunities is fundamental for meeting the SDGs and ensuring economic growth and stability in the long term.

Significant issues around supply and demand

During the past decade, our evaluation and learning activities with clients working on youth employment has enabled us to identify common four significant challenges that demand a systemic, holistic perspective:

  • Social inequality presents significant barriers for some youth groups, particularly young women.

Social inequality includes gender bias and discrimination, lack of access to education and training, unpaid care work, weak networks, hostile work environments and unsupportive policies.

  • Significant structural imbalances between job supply and labour demand, where labour demand far outstrips job supply.

This situation pushes down wages, disincentivises youth from entering the labour market and leads to underemployment.

  • Limited, dysfunctional information flows, in terms of job opportunities and labour supply.

This creates a situation where there can be both over supply of labour and unmet demand, as youth are not aware of opportunities and employers are not able to reach appropriate candidates to fill the positions they have available.

  • Education and training opportunities are not informed by market demand or business needs.

Youth are largely unable to find employment with their qualifications as they do not meet the needs of employers.

Three African men employed in a carpentry workshop
Three young men employed in a carpentry workshop

Guiding questions for better strategies

While all strategies need to be highly tailored to the context, here are some questions we think all programme funders and practitioners should ask themselves when designing and implementing youth employment interventions:

  1. Who are we targeting?

Youth are not a homogenous group. This demographic needs to be broken down to understand who the programme should target and what their specific (and often intersecting) needs are. Sub-categories include gender, disability, age-bracket, location (e.g. rural vs urban), education status and socio-economic status.

Inequality and social factors also play a significant role here – what are the social norms, particularly around women and people with disabilities that are inhibiting these youth from gaining employment? We’ve seen that sometimes there is a lack of understanding of these issues in project design, or when there is an understanding project designs don’t sufficiently take these into account.

We have found that thinking this through upfront can help teams to get a clear and shared understanding of the goals and appropriate level of ambition for an intervention. For example, there can be a trade-off between supporting youth who are more likely to find employment (e.g. older, higher educated youth) versus youth who face greater barriers to employment (e.g. younger, less educated youth) in terms of the time and investment needed to support each individual into decent employment.

  1. How do we address the imbalance between job supply and labour demand?

Programmes need to address the fundamental imbalance where labour demand significantly exceeds job supply.  Often youth employment programmes focus attention on addressing skills deficits within youth. We have found that it is equally important to look at systemic factors limiting business growth and job creation. These include regulations and policies; access to capital, financial services and technology; and exploiting opportunities presented by the green transition.

  1. How can we address quality as well as quantity?

Most development programmes will have defined what ‘employment’ means to them. For example, whether this includes entrepreneurial activities, part-time, full time, ad-hoc or permanent work, and how they might measure job quality (i.e. is it fulfilling, safe etc.). Our experience highlights the importance of moving beyond numbers (e.g. of jobs created) to really engaging with what creating a quality job opportunity actually means for youth.

  1. How can we improve information flows?

Poor information flows limit the ability of the interconnected elements that influence employment dynamics (policies, public institutions, private economic structures and training providers) from communicating effectively. Education and training opportunities are often not informed by market demand and business needs. This leads to investment in skills training being wasted on skills not required by the market. A gap between the skills demanded by employers and those possessed by job seekers limits job creation. Rapid technological change and shifts in the economy may require young people to continually update their skills, and if they do not have access to relevant training and education programmes, they will struggle to find employment, and businesses will not access the skills they need to grow. Conversely, trained and skilled youth are often not accessing information about relevant job opportunities. These means that young people are frequently mismatched in jobs that don’t fit their skills or career aspirations.

  1. What is our sphere of influence?

Once you have a clear understanding of the system you are trying to influence, then you must think carefully about whether and how your project has the capacity to influence, and where it is necessary to link with other partners and initiatives. What are the constraints you can seek to overcome and if there are binding constraints that you can’t influence in your project timeline or resource constraints, then are there opportunities to partner with others or might you need to reassess whether you can intervene in that particular jobs market?

Programmatic options

We have outlined a menu of programmatic options we’ve identified as critical in improving outcomes for projects looking to create employment opportunities for youth.

Understand the target group

Address systemic barriers that hinder youth employment, such as discrimination, lack of access to transportation, gender inequality and promote equal opportunities in the workforce by advocating for policies to eliminate discrimination in hiring, providing support for women entrepreneurs, and promoting gender-sensitive training programmes.

Understand contextual economic challenges

Conduct a thorough stakeholder analysis and engage with key stakeholders to gain insights into the economic landscape, including factors such as market trends, regulatory environment, labour market dynamics, and potential barriers to economic growth.

Consider key sectors for growth and social impact

Identify and support industries with high potential for job creation, such as renewable energy and the green transition, healthcare, tourism and agriculture and advocate for policies, reforms and incentives to attract investment and stimulate growth in these sectors.

Consider broader partnerships and collaboration

Foster collaboration between governments, businesses, educational institutions, and civil society organisations to develop comprehensive youth employment strategies. Pool resources, share best practices, and coordinate efforts to maximise impact and sustainability.

Invest in education and skill development

Prioritise education and skill development programmes tailored to the needs of the job market, which meet the particular needs of different youth groups. This includes vocational training, apprenticeships, and initiatives that equip youth with the skills demanded by industries.

Promote entrepreneurship and small business development

Facilitate access to resources, funding, and mentorship for young entrepreneurs, and consider how different groups of youth access these services. Encourage entrepreneurship through initiatives such as startup incubators, microfinance programmes and business development centres. Support to entrepreneurship should consider how micro-entrepreneurs transition into the formal sector to access support and investment to grow.

Enhance access to information about jobs and training opportunities

Establish platforms for job matching, career counselling, and networking to connect youth with employment opportunities. These should use digital platforms and mobile technologies to reach a broader audience and streamline the job search process.