University degrees are not the answer for Africa’s unemployed youth

South African university students are not sure their academic fees are worth it.
South African university students are not sure their academic fees are worth it.
Image: Reuters/Mark Wessels
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As a child, my friend Fola was good at math and excelled in the sciences and he wanted to be an engineer. But losing both his parents before the age of 15 changed everything. He was forced to adapt to a new and limited scope of opportunities available to him, both academically and financially. As he did, he learned how to deal with the trauma, adversity and setbacks and he built a high level of resilience.
There are so many people like Fola who are bright and motivated, but due to challenging circumstances may not have a typical CV or resumé listing the universities they attended and the financial firms where they’ve worked.
What if their CVs could instead focus on the things they learned from their actual “course of life”?
For Fola, his CV would show how he had learned to deal with hardship at an early age; how he’d developed higher level of emotional intelligence from sharing a new home with a dozen cousins run by a no-nonsense great aunt; and how he developed a remarkable level of drive and motivation towards his goals. Those are all skills that would serve him well in the workplace.
There are many people like Fola seeking work across Africa. In 2015, 226 million youth aged 15-24 lived on the continent, and that rate is expected to double by 2055. In many Sub-Saharan African countries, half of the population is under age 18. Youth unemployment is so pervasive that attendees of the recent annual meeting of the African Development Bank in late May made it a policy priority.
While only about 7% of the youth population across Africa gets into university, most job vacancy postings block out anyone without a university degree, no matter what other marketable skills they possess. In countries like Nigeria, the education system is so broken, and failing to deliver on its promise of developing basic literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking skills, that employers place an even higher premium on a “good education” and what that must mean about someone’s ability to learn and succeed on the job.
This kind of screening process not only negatively affects many potential employees but also employers. According to a 2014 National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) survey, the skills employers most want when they are deciding which new college graduates to hire are the ability to work well in a team, to make decisions and to solve problems.

In my work at  West Africa Vocational Education (WAVE)—getting unemployed young Nigerians ready for the workplace and connecting them to entry-level jobs—I meet with employers all the time, and I ask them what makes a successful employee. The answer usually focuses on character, behavior and soft skills, not a university degree.
This means that many employers are missing out on potential talent because the candidates lack the university credentials or type of work experience the employer thinks they must have. This is not to say that obtaining a university degree is not important, we do need more persons with degrees in Africa, but it should not be, by default, the top criteria for job selection.
To rectify this practice, we need to see industry-wide commitments from employers to engage in more socially-inclusive hiring practices that do not discriminate against young people because of their lack of job experience or degrees, but give them credit for valuable life skills.

Throw out degrees

Companies like Ernst & Young, PWC, and Penguin have already made bold steps in that direction, doing away with academic and education details in their application processes and attempting to level the playing field for talented individuals regardless of their background. They will now use online assessments to judge the potential of applicants. Fortunately more companies are joining the shift to this new policy of throwing out the degree and shifting to competencies.
From the employee side, unemployed youth can become more attractive to prospective employers by gaining skills like problem-solving, effective communication and time management through bridge programs that focus on training and apprenticeship. While they may have to start with minimum pay and earn while they learn, if they stick it out, they can work their way up the experience, skill and income ladders.
In Nigeria, there are some successful programs doing just this. WAVE Academies gets low-income unemployed youth ready for work and connects them to entry-level service jobs. Andela pays graduates a healthy income during their software development skills training program and places them with top technology companies worldwide as full-time team members. These models have the potential to eventually connect millions of young people to skills-linked to jobs, regardless of whether or not they have a university degree.

And this is sorely needed given that Nigeria’s youth unemployment rate currently stands somewhere between 50% and 56%.
Governments can also help by connecting young people to credible skills providers and creating bursaries to financially assist the most disadvantaged youth in attending those programs that demonstrate successful employment outcomes. An example worth borrowing is that of the City of Johannesburg’s partnership with Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, focused on connecting 200,000 to economic opportunities in 2016 alone. Harambee sources, screens, assesses and prepares first-time jobseekers for work, matching them to suitable work opportunities.