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Soft skills and work-based learning to help youth find jobs


Youth in Africa are finding it difficult to enter the workforce, in part because traditional school curriculums fall short of providing the crucial core skills that will help them achieve their professional goals. Technical skills are essential, but employers are seeking applicants who also have soft skills.

Navigating a formal work environment, solving problems independently, and working in teams are challenging concepts for recent graduates or for youth who have been doing menial jobs in the informal economy. “If we want to see young people find work, we have to invest in them. Youth need skills like interpersonal relations and emotional intelligence to adapt to the changing work environment,” said Francis Arinaitwe, a young leader and member of the Mastercard Foundation Youth Think Tank of Uganda.

Arinaitwe was one of the participants in a workshop hosted by Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth, a collaborative effort between IDRC, the Dutch Knowledge Platform on Inclusive Development Policies, and the International Labour Organization. The three-year initiative seeks to generate new and rigorous evidence on innovative approaches to support the development of soft skills among youth.

Understanding soft skills for the world of work

The two-day workshop brought the partnership’s eight research teams together with senior experts/resource persons and practitioners in the youth employment sphere. Arinaitwe’s role was to ground the academic and policy discussions within the reality of young people’s lived experiences.

For participants, there was no doubt that soft skills are increasingly critical for succeeding in the world of work — although there were varied views on what exactly soft skills entail. Some refer to behaviours and attitudes that complement technical skills, while others regard soft skills as everything that is not a technical skill.

Little is known about the most effective ways to teach soft skills, and greater clarity is needed about which soft skills, and in what combination, are the most relevant and important for employability. Documenting the type of skills-development programs that work best, and how to replicate them in other contexts, can benefit millions of young people trying to enter the labour market. Four of the Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth research projects seek to address these challenges to help youth find better employment.

During an ice-breaking activity at the workshop, Delila Kidanu from ThinkYoung shares her perspective on investments in youth employment in Africa.
African Economic Research Consortium (AERC)

Promising practices to help youth acquire skills on the job

Policymakers worldwide are looking for ways to prepare youth for the workforce, and there is a growing recognition that the best way for youth to acquire skills is on the job. Work-based learning such as internships, apprenticeships, and mentorships can help young people get a foot in the door, but private employers are often reluctant to take a chance on training entry-level youth. To mitigate the risk, some government-led initiatives offer stipends, while others create innovative partnerships with companies and non-governmental organizations.

The Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth initiative offers insights on the influence that work-based learning interventions has on young people. At the workshop, the research project teams from Benin, Mozambique, Nigeria, and South Africa highlighted strategies targeting different youth populations and industry sectors. For example, apprenticeships place youth in a real-world work environment and help them gain skills by working alongside an experienced employee in Africa’s traditional trades such as carpentry, sewing, farming, and hairdressing. Meanwhile, mentoring programs that link youth with professionals who provide guidance, knowledge, and access to networks are particularly beneficial for young entrepreneurs, who often struggle to overcome a host of challenges that accompany setting up a business. 

Mark Odong, a young entrepreneur who founded Agriquery solutions in Uganda, emphasized the impact of mentorship in his life: ‘’If you have a role model, it will help you keep on track. When I started my business, I was alone and struggled with the complexity of financial and strategic decisions. The guidance of a mentor would have been helpful from the start to help develop long-term goals and vision for my company.’’

A comprehensive approach is needed

There are still many unknowns about how and under which conditions these initiatives can facilitate young job seekers’ entry to the labour force. Research can play a key role in documenting program successes and in supporting policy recommendations to integrate innovative and scalable approaches.

The Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth initiative recognizes the importance of moving away from a one-size-fits-all solution. Youth are not a homogenous group, and different types of youth living in different settings require context-specific approaches. This is particularly important for young women and vulnerable groups who face additional barriers when trying to enter the workplace. 

In Africa, skills development programs are essential for increasing the likelihood of youth finding employment, but they must be part of a comprehensive approach that includes favourable macroeconomic conditions that support employment creation. Creating jobs and providing youth with the right soft and technical skills need to be part of an overall coherent strategy.

Learn more:

To find out more about the Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth initiative, read the brochure. To receive news about this partnership, contact