At the dawn of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – encompassing the rapid evolution of robotics, artificial intelligence, 3D printing and additive manufacturing technology, and the internet-of-things – one-fifth of the global population under the age of 25 resides in rapidly growing Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). But African governments are struggling to tap into this demographic dividend and are unable to take full advantage of emerging technology. One reason why: the crippling gap between what African students are learning and what African employers are seeking.
To find out how countries can bridge that gap and bring their education systems and strategies in line with labor markets, ACET led the newly published multi-country study Strengthening Education and Learning Systems to Deliver a 4IR-Ready Workforce. The study takes a close look at how students are educated and trained—and what’s working and not working in schools and vocational institutes—in six African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Rwanda, and Uganda. It also explores the role of the private sector and whether Africa’s youth are learning the skills they need to secure productive employment. The study will be a building block for ACET’s growing Youth Employment and Skills (YES) program.
On February 15, ACET in collaboration with the Center for Global Development (CGD) brought together policymakers and experts working to promote youth employment, education, and training on the continent to present the key findings of the study and discuss policies that can support countries in preparing for the future of work.
Mona Iddrisu, the Head of ACET’s YES program, was joined by panellists Biniam Bedasso, Senior Research Associate at CGD; Louise Fox, Non-resident Senior Fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative at Brookings; Khadidia Sidibé Ndiaye, Technical Advisor at the State Secretariat for Technical Education and Vocational Training of Côte d’Ivoire; and Priscilla Twumasi Baffour, senior lecturer and economist at the University of Ghana, for a discussion moderated by Gyude Moore, Senior Policy Fellow at CGD.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution: Threat or opportunity for Africa?
Mavis Owusu-Gyamfi, ACET’s Executive Vice-President, issued a stark warning to all stakeholders in her opening remarks: “If you think Africa is ready for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, think again.” With a widespread lack of technical skills and core competencies needed to secure jobs in a rapidly changing job market, 4IR could widen the gap between Africa and the world—or offer a pathway to transforming the continent.
Bedasso noted that there is enough room to expand and build the skills of the African workforce and attain structural economic change before advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) take over in Africa, with technology likely creating demand in some complementary areas.
According to Ndiaye, 4IR does not pose a threat, and in fact will deliver clear improvements on the continent. She pointed to the transformative impact of mobile phone technology for communication and forecasting as an example of the benefits of adopting technological innovations, confident that AI will be improving instead of reducing employment opportunities for the foreseeable future.
Fox offered a more cautious perspective. Skeptical about the widespread adoption of 4IR technologies in Africa, she noted that farmers today are largely failing to adopt already dated technology such as improved seeds and mechanization. She also warned that if African governments do go “all-in” on educating 4IR capable engineers, wage gaps would increase considerably and make earnings more inequitable.
Twumasi Bafour underlined the importance of African countries and businesses adopting technologies that supplement labor rather than substitute it. While the continent is struggling to create jobs and failing to industrialize, Africans should adopt technology in a way that is suitable for its development—instead of following a path set out in other parts of the world.
Improving access to secondary education for all
Strengthening Education and Learning Systems shows that African countries have made great progress in terms of enrollment and access to education, but Iddrisu noted that this access has not been universal. Vulnerable groups, including girls, students with special needs, and those in remote areas continue to lag behind, both in access to secondary school and transition to further education.
Bedasso pointed to school feeding programs as an important part of the solution to the access challenge. Research shows that there is a valid case for expanding school feeding programs in secondary schools, as this helps incentivize children from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds to enroll. Targeted cash transfers that cover out-of-pocket expenses can also help keep students in schools and address some of the transition issues.
Fox emphasized the importance of the findings on career guidance. The study shows that students still heavily rely on their parents’ career and education advice. Fox hypothesized that the lack of professional career guidance might be a significant cause of the unrealistic expectations that African youth have about their educational and career options. Investment in career guidance initiatives could be among the most cost-effective ways to address transition challenges.
The quality and relevance of vocational training
One of the key findings of the report is that the quality and relevance of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions remains poorly aligned to employers’ needs, even as countries have significantly expanded the number of TVET institutions. TVET also suffers from poor perceptions of learners and their parents, who often undervalue the opportunities that vocational and technical skills offer in the world of work.
Panelists were divided about the best approach to TVET in Africa. As the Technical Advisor at the State Secretariat for Technical Education and Vocational Training of Côte d’Ivoire, Sidibe Ndiaye made the case for the value of TVET within the schooling system. She explained that TVET offers a good opportunity for learners who do not continue to general education, and pointed to a bill in Côte d’Ivoire that is aimed at enhancing TVET by addressing some of the quality and relevance issues that are familiar to policymakers.
However, Fox argued against investing more in TVET. She noted the significantly higher expenses—TVET costs three to six times more than secondary schooling per student—and the unreformable nature of current incentives and institutional structures. Instead, she made the case for expanding general education, with an emphasis on soft skills and problem-solving initiatives as a more equitable approach to enhancing learning systems and improving skills.
Private sector involvement
One of the key recommendations from the study is the need to strengthen linkages between the public and private sectors. Survey results found that employers are eager to participate in curriculum development, but are rarely engaged. Public-private partnerships have the potential to close some of the gaps between the skills in high demand and those taught at secondary schools and technical and vocational institutions.
Twumasi Baffour underlined the importance of private sector involvement in curriculum development to help institutions identify demands in critical up-and-coming areas. More private sector involvement could also help bring in more much-needed financial resources for universities and research institutions. However, she also emphasized the importance of public funding of research—noting that African governments are not owning research because they are not paying for it, leading to a lack of research that is aligned to the needs of the continent.
She also raised the critical issue of moving from research to policy, urging stakeholders to effectively influence policymakers by bringing recommendations and findings to their doorstep.
The way ahead
In his concluding remarks, Ed Brown, ACET Senior Director for Research and Policy Engagement, reiterated the importance of engaging policymakers directly, outlining how ACET has created partnerships with counterparts at the country level. He announced the creation of a Youth Employment and Skills chapter of the Pan-African Coalition for Transformation—a platform that brings together policymakers, experts, and practitioners from several countries to ensure national strategies and policies are adjusted based on evidence and research.
Strengthening Education and Learning Systems to Deliver a 4IR-Ready Workforce is available to download here. Individual country reports on Côte d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Ghana, Niger, Rwanda, and Uganda, all of which were used to help inform the main study, will be released in the coming months.