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Policy-relevant lessons to help African youth develop workplace skills

December 3, 2019

Youth unemployment is a chronic problem across sub-Saharan Africa, where a large proportion of young people are unemployed and neither in training or gaining an education. Even in growing economies, millions of young people are excluded from the formal world of work.

Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) imparts knowledge and skills for employment and entrepreneurship. Although governments and development partners have noticeably improved skills development across eastern and southern Africa over the past decade, reforming the TVET sector is critical to address the scale of youth unemployment and to meet the demand for new skills in a changing global economy.

Research highlights

  • Reforms to the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector in Africa are necessary to address youth unemployment.

  • Research in six African countries identified common challenges in the TVET sector and recommendations to improve capacity.

  • The findings are contributing to change in national TVET systems, with Kenya and Uganda introducing new policies.

IDRC-funded research in six countries generated research evidence to contribute to these reforms. Led by three African universities, research teams in Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe identified valuable lessons on the common challenges affecting TVET systems and the potential for innovations to improve the sector’s capacity. In some countries, these findings are already guiding new policy formulation and implementation.

Six lessons to prepare youth for work

1. Match skills with demand

Research teams in Kenya, Malawi, and Zambia found a chronic misalignment between the skills demanded by employers and the skills imparted by TVET institutions. This is in large part due to low levels of private sector involvement in curriculum and program design, as well as limited apprenticeship and work placement opportunities for students. The research points to the urgency of building a demand-driven TVET sector that is responsive to industry needs.

2. Include soft skills training

The findings indicate that TVET graduates across all six countries tend to lack skills in areas such as writing, mathematics, reading, and computing. In addition to technical training, TVET can help youth develop these foundational skills as well as soft skills such as communication, management, problem solving, and teamwork.  

3. Address gender barriers

A UNESCO report finds that although female enrolment rates in TVET have increased over the last decade, men still dominate the sector. The six-country study highlighted significant barriers across the TVET system. For example, many institutions lack separate washrooms and accommodation and do not provide a safe environment for female students. TVET is often regarded as a male pursuit and there are low rates of enrolment among women in fields such as plumbing, electrical, and construction. Dropout rates are high in general, but the rate of female dropouts is higher than males. In Zimbabwe, for example, early marriage, pregnancy, or childcare responsibilities regularly cause women to abandon their studies. The research suggests that providing young women with access to life skills training and sexual and reproductive health and rights information could address these problems.

4. Seek innovative financing

Low levels of public funding present a significant obstacle for the TVET sector. Budget allocations are minimal relative to other levels of education. In Uganda, for example, at least 60% of the education budget is allocated to primary education, and the remaining 40% largely favours secondary and university education.

This declining or stagnant level of state funding for TVET has driven up tuition rates (further excluding the poor) and negatively affects teaching quality, curriculum development, training of trainers, and apprenticeships and internships. Governments cannot be expected to be the exclusive funders of TVET — new sources of financing are essential. These could include, for example, TVET training centres that offer services to generate income, or training and  apprenticeship levies on employers.

5. Build stronger links with the private sector

Key contributing factors to the disconnect between the TVET system and labour market demands are poor training infrastructure, outdated training methods and equipment, lack of a quality assurance system, and trainers’ lack of direct industry experience. Depending on the country and program of study, TVET graduates regularly experience a nine-month to two-year delay finding work, which highlights the lack of coordination between TVET institutions and employers. For example, over 50% of employers surveyed in Zambia had never visited a TVET college for recruitment or placement.

6. Change public perception

Across the six countries studied, researchers found that young people consider TVET to be a second choice or regard it as education intended for the poor, marginalized, or school dropouts. In Malawi, for example, youth are aware of the opportunities that TVET offers, but only a small proportion consider it as their first career choice.

The quality of instruction, equipment, and the amount of time dedicated to practical and workplace learning significantly influences student perceptions of TVET. Some students told researchers, “We don’t want to live a miserable life like TVET graduates we know or see.” These concerns could be addressed by investing in the quality of instruction and equipment and by developing solid links with the private sector. 

Sector reforms underway

With the goal of influencing positive change in the TVET sector, the research teams are sharing their findings via media, social media, public events, and meetings with policymakers. The project is helping to raise awareness of the potential of TVET among youth, businesses, high school teachers, and policymakers. This awareness is leading to action.

In Uganda, the Cabinet approved the 2019 Technical, Vocational Education and Training Policy, which incorporates the project’s country recommendations. The policy includes establishing an employer-led TVET system and developing standards and frameworks to improve the quality of trainers and TVET institutions.

The Kenyan government has drawn on the research findings to strengthen the regulatory framework for TVET and to link skills training to other education streams and labour market demand. IDRC is supporting the TVET Innovation Fund in this country to help expand the scale of TVET and the employability of graduates. Among other goals, the fund will support research led by TVET institutions to explore links with the private sector and to analyze the labour market using a gender perspective.