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Let’s prepare our youth for the future of work

It is time to adjust to the new reality of how work works. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Work is changing. Are we? All indicators show that employment is undergoing a seismic shift across the world. The impact is being felt severely in Africa as millions of young people reach working age. On one hand, companies lament that they can’t fill vacancies, with a study by the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) reporting that employers struggle to find workers with the skills they need.

On the other hand, graduates lament about a dearth of jobs. The data are sobering. In Kenya alone, approximately 1 million young people join the work force each year, with only one in five likely to find a formal job, leaving the rest unemployed, under-employed or in the informal sector.

Meanwhile, statistics show that steady work offers more than just money. Unemployment triggers mental stress with both intrapersonal and interpersonal consequences, including higher rates of suicide.

This makes the skills mismatch between the jobs available and the skills of youth a crisis. With the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reporting that 7 million Kenyans are unemployed, and another 3.7 million under-employed, something must be done urgently. But how do we bridge the skills gap and get our young people to work?

Ingrained biases are keeping us from making progress. First is our bias for formal employment. Certainly, we should ensure all Kenyans have decent work that generates sustainable livelihoods. But there is more than one way to do that. For one, it is important to acknowledge that in Kenya, the informal sector offered employment to 14.9 million persons in 2018. Indeed, the informal sector comprises 87 percent of all jobs.

Kenya is not an isolated case. Across the world, work is increasingly ‘gigs’, where even highly educated workers provide flexible, short-term consulting to numerous clients.

And companies too are evolving towards blended workforces, a diverse set of arrangements with consultants and employees, some full time, others part-time and many working remotely. This is especially well-suited for short-term projects where specialised high-value or creative skills are needed.

The important thing, then, is for Kenya to ensure that those gigs that make up the bulk of our jobs offer viable livelihoods. That, in turn, comes from ensuring that skills on offer are practical, of high standard and relevant to local or remote customers.

Our second problematic bias is our emphasis on ‘papers’ alone, often in the form of certifications that are not always proof of competencies the market is keen to pay for. It is true that education is valuable in itself. After all, we need an enlightened, ethical population.

However, most parents make large sacrifices in time and funds to finance schooling expecting that their children will earn an income that at a minimum will allow them to be financially independent. It is disappointing when after this colossal, communal effort, graduates end up ‘tarmacking’ (job hunting) for several years.

This points to the importance of ensuring every young person reaches adulthood with a sellable skill. And work is work. Lately, a band of energetic creative young men are offering their services across Nairobi as clowns and illusionists for childrens’ parties on weekends.

Rather than rolling over on Saturday morning from a week of idling or, worse, a heavy night of drinking, these plucky patriots wake up bright and early to do what they can with what they have. It says a lot about what is possible, particularly in the service and entertainment industries, when we think outside the box. But it also says a lot about who it is our society we should celebrate.

The third bias is the idea that only technical skills matter. Whether one is employed or self-employed, certain behaviours make a huge difference in keeping a job, or a client. Soft skills – like time keeping, reliability, teachability, discipline – all matter. Grooming, writing and client service skills help too.

Technical and Vocational (TVET) training, with its emphasis on front-line, practical, time-bound courses, is one clear way to fix the skills mismatch. Countries like Germany have developed on the back of a strong TVET sector, highly respected worldwide for its apprenticeship system that has created an active and valued paraprofessional cadre providing small and large business as well as government with the labor needed.

We need to fund, fill and fete the TVET sector. Not only will it create jobs, it will provide the goods and services our society needs day to day.

It is time to adjust to the new reality of how work works. Only then will we be able to turn our youth crisis into an opportunity.

The writer is director, Africa Digital Media Institute.

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