Tackling long-term unemployment challenges

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That unemployment is an issue of critical concern to many countries is no longer news. What is news is how the matter can be tackled. The phenomenon is both an economic and security issue due to the large number of capable young people who are without work and disposed to illegal activities. Bloomberg reports that the unemployment rate in Ghana has almost tripled over the past decade. According to the 2021 Population and Housing Census by the Ghana Statistical Service, more than 13 percent of Ghana’s economically active population are out of work.

Unemployment is an age-old problem that successive governments have tried to reduce its rate and consequential impact on the economy, but the dial has hardly shifted.  From implementation of the Ghana Worker’s Brigade, the National Youth Employment Programme (NYEP) to the Youth Employment and Development Agency (YEDA), Youth Employment Agency (YEA) and the current Nation Builders Corps (NABCO), policy interventions have been short-term in nature and unable to address the problem in a comprehensive manner.

Tackling the issue requires an approach that addresses the matter comprehensively. One of the arguments put forth as contributing to the unemployment situation in Ghana is unresponsiveness of the education structure to current industry demands. The first step on this remedial journey is the provision of good quality and relevant education that not only responds to the exigencies of today’s world, but also prepares the minds of young people for the future. Thankfully, interventions such as Free Compulsory Basic Education and now Free SHS are ensuring that our young people have access to the minimum basic education.

Around the world, heads of some of the most successful companies – Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Sundar Pichai, AMD’s Lisa Su, Tesla’s Elon Musk – have one thing in common:  They’re engineers – they have had rigorous training in mathematical and scientific approaches to solving problems, and are not shy to get into technical details of the product or service.

From that perspective, there is a strong push to rebalance our educational structure toward STEM subjects.   The goal is for STEM to serve as a catalyst to enhance the abilities of countries to produce youth with strong technical and analytical capabilities that can develop home-grown technologies to would address uniquely African problems.

Beyond developing a purposeful approach toward STEM education, African countries must also place emphasis on vocational learning and disabuse the minds of youth that a university title and route are an assured path to attaining career success. Experts point to a correlation between youth experiencing vocational training and youth employment. This explains why the debate on the merits of converting Ghanaian polytechnics into technical universities continues with great intensity.

It may be argued that the role and importance of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as a means of equipping our youth with technical skills isn’t new to us. Until the conversion of eight out of the ten polytechnics into technical universities, Ghana had one polytechnic in each of the ten erstwhile regions, named after the regional capitals such as the Accra Polytechnic in Accra and the Ho Polytechnic in Ho.

After the show of conversion was over, the number of technical universities or polytechnics has stayed flat at ten over the last two decades.  Meanwhile, the number of universities increased from just three in 1990 to 70 in 2014 – with many of the new institutions focusing on the humanities and liberal arts programmes.

One may ask if we can attribute the difficulty in finding competent plumbers in Ghana to the fact that we have not witnessed a rise in the number of polytechnics or schools for higher vocational learning in the country, even as liberal arts universities keep springing up

Aside from providing avenues for students to complete their national service engagements, the private sector must embrace apprenticeships for young people as a more direct corporate social contribution to the society.  This could be done alongside the monetary contributions that firms extend as part of their corporate social responsibilities.

Government policy may also be geared toward establishing more technical schools to train JHS and SHS school leavers, and graduates with high demand technical skills sought after by industry and the society.  It is only through such deliberate acts that the youth will be equipped with employable skills to match the requirements of industry and provide a route to the job market for students not inclined to academic university courses.

A look at other parts of the globe such as the UK and the US, where a National Apprenticeship Week (NAW) is observed may illustrate this point. This is a convening of business leaders, career seekers, labour, educational institutions and other critical partners to demonstrate their support for apprenticeships. The week-long celebration also provides apprenticeship sponsors with the opportunity to showcase their programmes, facilities and apprentices in their community. Such celebrations highlight the benefits of apprenticeships in preparing a highly skilled workforce to meet the talent needs of employers across diverse industries.

Experience is indeed the best teacher, so we need not be afraid of experimenting. And as a popular story told of the inventor Thomas Edison goes – while he was working on creating the light-bulb in his lab in New Jersey, USA, a visitor to the lab expressed sympathy to Edison regarding the failed experiments and lack of results. Edison countered by saying: “I have not failed, not once.  I’ve discovered ten thousand ways that don’t work”.

This story illustrates why our talented youth need support to brainstorm and co-create as they embark on their entrepreneurial ventures. Solving practical problems requires funding, facilities, mentorship and research centres to provide subject matter expertise on trends.

In August 2019, Stanbic Bank Ghana launched one of its most significant Corporate Social Initiatives – the SB Incubator. This was to provide business advisory, coaching and mentorship, and market access facilitation and networking opportunities to aspiring entrepreneurs and startups in Ghana. Located at Silver Star Tower, the SBIncubator also offers world-class co-working spaces. Through the bank’s Staff Volunteer Mentorship programme, its staff offer their expertise and time to members of the SBIncubator Community.

Although COVID impacted engagements in 2020, the bank hosted 47 capacity building sessions that impacted 2,498 participants. We also hosted 52 coaching and mentoring sessions, 11 of which were held physically prior to the lockdown period.  This translates into 44 one-on-one sessions and 8 group-coaching sessions.

In total, 380 SMEs and start-ups were directly impacted through these training programmes.  We also established and consolidated our partnerships with 18 strategic entities to create more value for the entrepreneurs. These partners include the likes of Reset Global People, the Israeli Embassy in collaboration with Haim Gil-Ad, Ashesi Venture Incubator and the World Economic Forum Road to Davos Discourse among others.

The importance of Africa’s youth to nation-building cannot be overemphasised, given their numbers.   In Ghana, the youth population was estimated at 10 million in 2017 – making up 35 percent of the country’s population.  As posited above, the responsibility for ensuring that they contribute effectively to nation-building is a collective one that lies with policymakers, educational and corporate institutions, parents and the youth themselves.

The implications for any country in not fully developing the potential of its vibrant youth population could be dire, possibly leading to economic losses, armed conflict, social upheaval, and political instability. One of the routes for possibly tackling this is STEM education.

>>>the writer is Manager, Communications at Stanbic Bank

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