By Tania Beard
Africa has the largest population of residents under the age of 25 (600 million people), making it the youngest continent in the world. While a young population might seem to bode well for economic development, in reality roughly 60% of these youth are jobless.
Employing the continent’s young citizens is a challenge. With fierce competition for jobs, limited opportunities to gain work experience, pervasive nepotism, and financial and cultural barriers to entrepreneurship, African youth have a hard time getting a foot on the first rung of the career ladder. It doesn’t help that, in many African countries, the content students learn in the classroom is woefully misaligned with the skills that employers require.
As a result, the National Youth Service, a longstanding institution that engages young people in civic service through provision of skills training, job placements, and leadership opportunities, has become a development priority for many countries. Eighteen countries currently house a National Youth Service. Kenya recently announced that its youth service will now be mandatory for all secondary school graduates, and the Flemish and South African governments are partnering to invest in youth service in the fields of art and culture.
In November 2013, Voluntary and Service Enquiry Southern Africa (VOSESA) partnered with Innovations in Civic Participation and the MasterCard Foundation to hold Africa’s first learning forum on the National Youth Service. Government, civil society, and private sector representatives from more than 20 African countries discussed how to “reap the demographic dividend” of Africa’s youth population to avoid the “demographic disaster” of youth unemployment.
Participants discussed how to ensure the effectiveness and sustainability of the National Youth Service. The group walked away from the forum recognizing the importance of private sector involvement in developing National Youth Service curricula and arranging work experience placements for youth.
The learning forum comes on the heels of Dalberg Research’s study to understand whether and how the Ghanaian National Service Scheme (NSS), one of the oldest and largest National Youth Services in Africa, fosters employability, sustainable livelihoods, and entrepreneurship among youth, and how it can do more.
In Ghana, the NSS places 80,000 post-university youth in year-long public, private, and civil society sector positions annually. Participation is mandatory for university graduates, who receive small monthly stipends paid by the Ministry of Education and private sector donors. The program gives youth work experience and helps the country fill jobs that might otherwise go unfilled, such as teacher positions in rural areas. It also gives youth an opportunity to give back to their communities while still earning a living. Following their service, youth can look for full-time jobs or transition into entrepreneurship; some opt to enter a follow-up one-year voluntary teaching placement in rural and impoverished communities called the National Volunteer Service.
The Dalberg Research study found that the Ghanaian National Service Scheme does make young people “work-ready” by giving them practical and soft skills to enter the job market with confidence. But, we also found that NSS could do more to tackle unemployment. For example, the NSS has great potential to alter the youth employment landscape in Ghana based on the sheer scale of the program, its well-timed intervention at a period of transition in young people’s lives, and its backbone of state financial and legislative support. Ghana’s NSS is thus primed to provide a communication channel between Ghana’s education system and its key industries. The program could provide crucial feedback to parents, students, and educational institutions on the mismatch between skill supply and demand in the employment market.
Youth unemployment is one of Africa’s most pressing development challenges, and studying the National Youth Service is one way that countries can exchange and implement effective strategies to combat it. To start, access the full Ghana NSS report here. Or, click here to read more on Dalberg’s work in youth employment.