It is generally believed that whatever their background or family income, all youth should be given the opportunity to reach their full potential through a well-developed and coordinated educational curriculum which addresses the learning needs and aspirations of children and youth. This is because youth employment issues are major concerns, since they affect the welfare of young people and potentially the long-term performance and stability of every economy.
Focusing on employable skills
When you interview many children about what they want to be in the future, they often mention professions and vocations like doctor, nurse, pharmacist, architect, teacher, police, military etc. The list of professions and vocations children cite as their preference buttresses the notion that someone must employ them after their education. Rarely have I heard many children mention their desire to become hairdressers and beauticians, building technicians (masons), electricians, welders, plumbers, tailors and dressmakers. This is because these latter professions or vocations tend to promote self-employment, but in a country where everyone wants to be employed it is not surprising that many children and youth shy away from learning trades and skills.
Another reason is that society (including mothers and fathers) tends to look down on skills and trade-based education or vocations. Parents often inspire their children to aspire to become doctors, nurses, or teachers who have a guarantee for ready employment. But changes in economic and financial architecture of developing countries like Ghana indicate that ready-made jobs in the public sector are no longer guaranteed.
Until recently, technical and vocational education was anathema in many households – partly because of the stigma associated with learning a trade and years of state failure to invest in technical and vocational training. This societal and state attitude toward technical and vocational training made it less attractive to the youth. However, the recent reinvigoration and proper coordination of technical and vocational training – as well as science, technology, engineering and math, has signalled Ghana’s readiness to change the economy’s structure in the medium- to long-term. Government’s policy of investing in trades and skills training is the surest way to boost the country’s manpower development and improve self-employment.
The Europeans who initially encountered Ghana and the rest of Africa decided to interrupt and shift our educational system from practicing to theorising and remembering. They introduced a school system that did not promote thinking, but memorising. This policy enabled them to create a labour force to serve their needs. I remember in primary school we learnt useless things like the names of rivers, names of countries, their capital towns and populations, whereas our counterparts in Europe learnt practical things that prepared them for future self-employment and innovation.
Currently, our children are learning about traditional festivals, Christian and Moslem festivals and how many times adherents of religions pray in a day. Arguably, I wonder how the knowledge of our traditional and religious festivals in future will help our children contribute to economic productivity. Our children are great at memorising mathematics and science formulas, but are unable to practicalise their knowledge for the benefit of society.
Over time, all of us – including yours truly – became carriers of non-productive knowledge. That is why after 64 years of independence Ghana has just launched a vaccine development initiative to produce basic vaccines locally. In fact, this is one initiative I hope will help offer our scientists the opportunity to put their theory into practice. Producing vaccines locally will affirm that we have attained a certain measure of independence, besides helping to preserve foreign exchange used in importing vaccines.
Of course, while the western education was programmed to make Africans read and write without any technical and vocational skills, it cannot be entirely blamed for our continuous neglect of trades and technical skills. This is the major cause of joblessness among the youth, especially among the males who are expected to become breadwinners. A way out is to equip our children and youth with an entrepreneurial mindset. An entrepreneurial mindset is a set of skills which enable people to identify and make the most of opportunities, overcome and learn from setbacks, and succeed in a variety of settings. It mostly includes encouraging the youth to shift attention from being an employee to being self-employed and independent.
The 4th Industrial Revolution
In mentioning the possible trades and skills that our youth should explore, I didn’t mention information, science and technology. There is enormous data about how digital technology has become the fourth industrial revolution, which is driving both public and private sector innovations and employment.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution is about empowering people, especially the youth, to identify and explore opportunities in the digital technology space and equip themselves for employment or self-employment. Indeed, the future of work is technology. Case-studies indicate that software and technology have the potential to empower people to be more innovative. Since industry will always need human brilliance, human ingenuity and human skills, our government should scale-up investments in digital technology to target the youth for job creation. In all, the youth form a strategic pool of human resources that can be encouraged to use science and technology to gain employment.
Benefits of youth employment
Recently, there have been intensified efforts at the intergovernmental level to develop and implement strategies which give young people a real chance to find decent and productive work. The Commission for Social Development has outlined a number of benefits that youth employment bring to families and society. It notes that for every young person, a job offering decent work is an important step in completing the transition to adulthood – a milestone toward independence and self-reliance. For children and young people living in poverty, employment is often the main means for attaining a better life; though such employment is often informal, with poor or exploitative working conditions.
For more fortunate youth, prospective employment influences their choice of education and training, and increasingly their decisions regarding marriage, kinship and cohabitation. For society, youth employment promotes social integration, intergenerational dialogue, citizenship and solidarity. Besides, creating and fulfilling income-generating job opportunities for young people can have direct positive consequences for poverty alleviation.
Not only does youth employment benefit social development, but it also benefits economic development by facilitating the entry of young, skilled people into the productive sectors of an economy. It also enables an economy to sustain or increase its productivity and competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Negative effects of unemployment
Studies have shown that persistent youth unemployment has a negative impact on social development. Youth unemployment, in particular long-term youth unemployment, can generate frustration and low self-esteem – and can lead to the increased vulnerability of some young people to drugs, disease and crime.
Youth unemployment can also lead to marginalisation and exclusion of young people. There is evidence that unemployment can expose youth to greater risks of lower future wages, repeated periods of unemployment, longer unemployment spells as adults, and income poverty. Moreover, unemployment rates are typically higher for young women than for men, while youth in rural areas face different challenges from their urban peers. In addition, young people with disabilities continue to face enormous challenges in the labour market. In some countries, ethnicity – particularly among young migrants, is a factor in their social exclusion and marginalisation.
Furthermore, youth unemployment can impose large economic costs on society. The necessity to address needs of long-term unemployed youth can become a significant burden on public budgets. When there is a mismatch between the education and training young people receive and requirements of employers, or if the employment opportunities are simply not there, both young people and society bear the costs. A large pool of unemployed youth could be exploited for terrorist activities in future.
Finally, when some youth are unable to complete their education and training, or to successfully negotiate their way into employment, there is a need to offer them ‘second chances’ through supported technical and vocational training interventions or job placement schemes. In this regard, the Ghana government’s introduction of vocational and apprenticeship training voucher schemes is worth commending. Yet, on a per capita basis, there is a high cost associated with these interventions. Therefore, it is imperative that the education, employment and social services help young people “get it right the first time”.
The Commission for Social Development offers the following policy options for countries to improve youth training and employable skills:
- Ensuring all young people have access to education, including technical and vocational training; and have the opportunity to fully realise their capabilities.
- Removing obstacles in the labour market, so that young people can take full advantage of employment opportunities and successfully navigate the school-to-work transition.
- Addressing the gender discrimination young women face in the labour force, as well as other forms of discrimination such as those based on disability and ethnicity.
- Harnessing the forces of globalisation and exploiting new technologies to create new employment opportunities for young people.
- Mitigating the negative impact of migration – which for many young people may represent the only viable opportunity for employment – and ‘brain-drain’.
- Addressing the relationship between adolescent reproductive health and youth employment in conflict and post-conflict countries.