Opinion: 5 ways to address Africa's skills gap in the age of automation

Youth technology training in South Africa. Photo by: Beyond Access / CC BY-SA

Sustained economic growth across several African economies has resulted in optimism for the continent’s social and economic transformation.

There are several reasons to be optimistic — political stability, investments in education and infrastructure, the promise of technology, and a youth bulge that will result in 375 million young people entering the labor market by 2030, which, if well-managed, will be a demographic dividend.

Q&A: Microsoft 4Afrika regional director on skills gaps in Africa's digital transformation:

While access to the internet and mobile technology is spreading rapidly in Africa, some are concerned that the expansion is not working for all. Microsoft 4Afrika Regional Director Amrote Abdella, tells Devex that new technologies need to close the skills gap and help small businesses grow if much-needed advances are not going to leave people behind.

Compared to past generations, this generation is healthier, more educated, and has easier access to information, consumer goods, and services through technology. While circumstances are measurably better, a significant gap between the number of young people seeking work and the limited employment opportunities available means finding and securing meaningful, dignified work is challenging.

This is due, in part, to the way many African economies are transforming. Growth has often been commodity led and “jobless.”

Industrialization and manufacturing have not absorbed labor and taken the place of agriculture to the same extent as other developing countries. The displacement of low-level manufacturing from China to Africa has not materialized. Firms have often chosen to reduce costs, upgrade technology, or expand to new markets instead of moving production.

As automation increases, the demand for many types of labor is further undermined. This has led to the services sector often employing the highest number of young people after agriculture.

Growth of the services sector has several implications for investments in education and skills development training. Within the services sector are high-potential subsectors that can offer viable employment pathways suited to young labor entrants.

To ensure there is a skilled labor force for the services sector, alternative education and training models are required. The way demand-led skills are identified and taught, as well as models to embed training within the private sector, require adaptation to address current needs and anticipate this broader shift, including:

Transferable skills

A focus on transferable skills, such as communication skills, higher order thinking, self-control, and a positive self-concept, directly aligned to employer demand. This includes an ability to identify an issue and take in information from multiple sources: Successful decision-making, conflict, as well as self-efficacy, self-awareness, and a sense of well-being. Developing these skills can lead to improved employment outcomes, and requires new approaches to learning, pedagogy, assessment, and certification.

Utilize technology

Training models that utilize technology for a combination of online and classroom instruction enable scale, reduce cost, and increase the adaptability of curriculum to respond to employer needs. Existing infrastructure, budgets, instructor constraints, combined with the number of young people seeking training, requires models which increase access and reach.    


On-the-job training, through placements, internships, or apprenticeships draw closer and more meaningful skills connections between young people and industry. Approaches that incentivize and support small-to-medium enterprises to provide quality apprenticeship opportunities with training or finances increase the ability of small businesses to hire trainees and provide safe quality experiences.

In-house training

Employer-led training can improve retention and increase productivity to offset recruitment and training costs; shift training from the classroom to employers; and create opportunities for public-private financing.


Microcredentialing, or the certification of specific skills or competencies, has the potential to focus training offerings, reduce time spent in training, and respond to market demand so that young people can attain skills required by employers, transition to work more quickly, and develop additional skills over time.  

Yet, unless there are sustained growth and viable employment opportunities for the increasing number of young people entering the labor market, these approaches to skills development will lead to a surplus of trained youth.

Identifying high-potential growth sectors that have low barriers to entry, are labor intensive, and embed technological skills, is critical to closing the gap between supply and demand in the labor market.

One promising sub-sector in the services industry is tourism and hospitality. Across the African continent, tourism is growing. In 2015, the sector accounted for more than 8 percent of gross domestic product at $180 billion and generated more than 9 million direct jobs.

Tourism is compelling for youth employment for several reasons. It requires transferable skills, can provide opportunities for on-the-job training, and has the capacity to integrate information and communications technology across all employment levels. It is also linked to other high-potential industries such as business process outsourcing, call centers, and higher order services such as accounting, financial services, and back office support.

As African economies continue to transform and the demand for skills and employment opportunities increase, alternative training models become increasingly critical. Against the backdrop of automation, reducing the need for labor, skills development, and investments in sectors which can support employment and growth become increasingly important.  

Steve Cumming is a speaker during Wise @ Accra, taking place May 9, 2018 in Accra, Ghana.

About the author

  • Steve Cumming

    Steve Cumming is associate director of secondary education and TVET at Mastercard Foundation, where he leads a team focused on youth and skill development. Over the past seven years at Mastercard Foundation, Steve has developed a portfolio of youth economic development and workforce programs for young people, including most recently, Hanga Ahazaza, an initiative focused on tourism and hospitality training for young people in Rwanda.