When I was 18 years old, full of ambition, zeal and energy, I graduated from high school in Kampala, Uganda, with good grades and a great command of the English language. With my gap year at hand, I combed the streets of Uganda’s capital, looking for a job. After being turned down several times for not having the right skills, through a friend’s mother I was finally hired at a fruit juice factory where I hauled heavy juice boxes. My strength was the only skill needed and I was thrilled to be earning a meager $1.25 a day.
Almost 90 percent of Uganda’s youth aged 15-24 are literate; the country ranks No. 1 in Africa for its English literate population. That statistic pales in comparison to its painful 64 percent youth unemployment rate, a figure that is particularly alarming since young people comprise 80 percent of the population. The mismatch between Uganda’s education model and employable skill sets prevents our youth from being relevant to the global market economy. For a population of 37 million, this is a genocide not only of the mind but of the country’s future social, economic and political leaders.
This is not just a Ugandan problem. Close to 70 percent of Africa’s youth between the ages of 15 and 35 have no access to formal employment. With time on their hands and a precarious future, some of them become susceptible to the messages and quick cash of extremist groups, such as al-Shabab, which carried out the recent heinous attacks in Kenya, and rebel groups like the Ugandan Allied Democratic Forces that terrorize the regions of Central and East Africa.
This is why a member of the U.K. Parliament recently warned, “The world needs to wake up to ‘the ticking time bomb’ of youth unemployment in developing countries and treat the issue as seriously as humanitarian disasters and global efforts to eradicate disease.”
While I disagree that this is just a problem in developing countries — youth unemployment rates are 50 percent in Spain and the U.S. has 4.4 million unemployed young people — as an advocate for investing in quality and equitable skills-based education, I agree that we must do something now.
First, we cannot brush the past under the carpet, while trying to create the future. Most of the education systems across Africa were designed by colonial masters and were never created to employ or sustain the economies of the newly independent states. In Uganda, the education system has had little to no revision from its colonial era legacy, and my own education was more Western-focused than it was on African problems or issues. These education systems must be reformed to focus on the current realities of the interdependent global market economy.
Not long ago when teachers requested for an increase in their modest salaries, President Yoweri Museveni told them that infrastructure development was more important and to take their current pay or to go “rear goats.” This is unacceptable. Governments and corporations alike need to prioritize investing in quality and experiential youth education, skills development and entrepreneurship, the same way they do in military technology for security purposes.
But education alone is not enough. We also need to think about the markets where there are jobs and equip youth with skills to work there. For example, in Uganda, we need to stop shunning agriculture. Today, 80 percent of Uganda’s population depends heavily on subsistence agriculture, yet both our primary and tertiary education systems have little emphasis on agricultural entrepreneurship and modern methods of the green economy. In fact, thousands of youth flee the countryside into urban cities looking for elusive jobs, only to end up as beggars on the streets or selling counterfeit merchandise, despite the booming agricultural economic potential of the nation.
There are innovative models for helping youth learn a range of marketable skills that we need to support and replicate. Often these are spearheaded by social enterprises, nongovernmental organizations and corporate philanthropies. For example, the MasterCard Foundation has partnered with BRAC Uganda to work with young people, mostly girls from economically disadvantaged communities, to assist them with their education, livelihood support and entrepreneurship opportunities. Sometimes they provide microfinance to help the young people run their own enterprises, improving their livelihoods.
Another example comes from India, where LabourNet, one of Acumen’s many investee social enterprises, aims to help create holistic employment solutions for the informal sector, which is around 500 million people, 65 percent of whom are young people aged 35 and under. I work in their offices in Bangalore where we offer an ecosystem of in-school and out-of-school skill-based vocational education, on-the-job training and continuous upward skilling.
The Indian government launched a campaign last fall called Skilling India, summoning LabourNet and 34 other training partners governed by the National Skill Development Corp., to skill 500 million young people by 2022. So far, 150,000 people — mostly youths — have been trained and placed in job roles ranging from manufacturing, construction, beauty and health care, to agricultural production and entrepreneurship.
There is no silver bullet for addressing youth unemployment, but simply telling young people to get an education is not enough. Too often that education is subpar and does not help them land a job. Instead, we must prioritize skills-based learning and leverage the growing number of ideas and innovations that are helping teach young people marketable as well as entrepreneurial skills.
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James Kassaga Arinaitwe is an Aspen New Voices Fellow and a Global Fellow at Acumen. He is currently working with LabourNet, a social enterprise in India that focuses on education and upward skilling to improve the livelihoods of workers.
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