Technology Salon

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a discussion at the intersection of technology and development

How to Create Digital Job Opportunites for African Youth

digtal jobs african youth

At the Technology Salon on “How Can We Create Digital Jobs for African Youth?” our discussion was led by Lauren Dawes, who leads the GSMA’s Mobiles for Employment team, and Lillian Chege from the Rockefeller Foundation’s Digital Jobs Africa program. The GSMA will release a study on Mobiles for Youth Employment in July, and Rockefeller has recently announced a 7-year, multi-million dollar commitment to creating digital jobs in six African countries.

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The wealth of experience in the room led to lively discussions and debates around roles and responsibilities in this area. The stagnant global economy is a major underlying problem when it comes to youth employment, and jobs cannot be created out of thin air. Salon participants shared how they are trying to work around this by identifying areas with potential for youth, preparing youth for these opportunities, and seeking to match youth skills with private sector demand. Alternatively, some Salon participants focus on helping youth enter into different forms of entrepreneurship.

What do youth want?

When surveyed for a previous GSMA study on Mobile Learning, young people indicated more interest in using mobile devices for finding a job than for learning math or English. Most youth prioritized work skills to get jobs. So the GSMA conducted a second study (forthcoming) with youth in Spain, Ghana, Indonesia and Bangladesh to identify where mobile devices could help with youth employment.

The study’s preliminary findings indicate that youth want support for learning and training; finding a job (connecting to employers, knowing what to say to them, understanding the process of getting a job); and obtaining skills and capital to start their own businesses. Surveyed youth identified interest in manufacturing, catering, teaching, and the ICT and mobile sectors, including sales, selling mobile phones and mobile accessories, and jobs in the mobile industry.

Do youth have a sense of what is possible?

Listening to youth is very valuable, but some Salon participants felt that youth might only be aware of what they see around them. How can we help youth discover new areas and expand their horizons, they asked. Might there be jobs and possibilities that youth are well suited for but do not know about? The fall back position of “start my own business” is another example of what youth see around them in poor economies where there are no formal jobs. Youth’s ideas will likely be very experience-based.

One Salon participant told of an innovation contest, where youth in Kenya submitted new and creative ideas, whereas those from some other countries submitted ideas that closely mirrored NGO programs commonly seen in their communities. Stimulating youth to think bigger and exposing them to new opportunities and ideas is an important part of youth development and youth employment programs.

Soft skills for formal jobs

As the GSMA study noted, a big challenge for youth is understanding the job seeking process and gaining the skills needed to find a job, communicate with employers, and then keep a job. Many youth do not know how to manage an interview, or how to retain connections. Placing someone who has never experienced a formal setting into a formal job, even at an entry-level, creates a whole set of issues. In some cases these may be more basic, like personal hygiene, arriving to work on time, or simply knowing how to navigate a formal work environment. New kinds of hierarchies may need to be learned. For example, in some contexts males have never had to work with or report to females.

On top of these situations, there may be additional, deeper challenges. In one employment program, a Salon participant noted, 8 of the 10 girls recruited were survivors of rape. Once youth land a job, an entire family is relying on them and their income, and this generates a great deal of stress. The traditional education system does a very poor job of helping youth gain soft skills, As one participate noted, it still aims to prepare youth for an industrial economy yet today’s world requires completely different skills to succeed.

Skills for entrepreneurship

The state of the economy is such that many youth will not find formal employment and are considering starting their own businesses. In the GSMA study, youth identified a desire for capital and support in this area. A Salon participant outlined 3 kinds of entrepreneurship: high impact/high growth (Silicon valley style); lifestyle entrepreneurship (small and medium enterprises, family businesses); survival entrepreneurship (low-skilled, informal businesses). Each of these is quite different, and adequate risk analysis and targeted support and skills training need to be developed for each according to the context.

Most youth in developing countries will not work in Silicon Valley. They will instead need to develop skills for lifestyle and survival entrepreneurship. Soft skills as well as technical know-how are critical for entrepreneurship, and many investments are unsuccessful because these skills are not strong among youth. Generational gaps also make it difficult for older people to mentor younger people, because things are moving from print to digital and relationships are also changing. Innovation hubs are aiming to fill this gap and provide youth with a relevant space to learn the hard and soft skills required for high impact, high growth entrepreneurship in the tech sector.

What about young women?

It was noted that most of the existing innovation hubs are very male-focused. For example, only 16% of the iHub Nairobi’s users are female. More needs to be done to bring women into these spaces, yet it can be challenging in many context where girls do not complete secondary school. Female role models and mentors are scarce in these new fields and in leadership positions within companies. Mentorship is key for young women, who tend to doubt themselves, to be apologetic about their ideas, and who are often shy about speaking up.

Some organizations are using Skype, Google hangouts, Facebook, and Twitter chats to reach and mentor young women. Girls from poorer communities, however, may have access to these programs and may not see themselves and their personal experiences reflected in female role models from the upper classes. In addition, though mentoring is high touch and very powerful, in its current form it is time-consuming and not feasible for reaching everyone who needs it. The challenge is offering these kinds of support at scale.

The employment ecosystem

Some participants noted that creating one job at a large company can stimulate additional, related jobs (e.g., cleaners, nannies and cooks who serve employees at lunchtime). Others felt that the trickle-down effect is overestimated. An entire ecosystem conducive to youth employment is needed. This is not a simple thing to create, and it takes quite a long time. The role of government in creating the infrastructure for jobs and a digital economy cannot be underestimated.

One participant pointed out that both “bottom up” development of the labor market and “top down” development of labor infrastructure and capital are needed. This will vary from country to country, and research should be conducted to understand the right entry points for each context. All these sectors need to work together to match the economic context, the demand, and the supply sides. The private sector cannot create jobs on its own, as one discussant commented. Jobs are created because of consumer demand and need. The private sector can, however, get better at identifying which jobs are on the horizon, and it can work with education, training, and non-profit partners to ensure that youth are prepared for these jobs.

Comprehensive programs are needed

When we train youth for non-existent jobs, we create expectations, said one Salon participant, citing an ILO study that reported 40% of job programs had negative impacts on youth. In addition, programs cannot only look at one side of the issue. Youth employment programs should not be just hard skills, just soft skills, or just mentorship. Rather they need to be comprehensive. The issue of supply-demand balance is rampant across development programs, noted another participant. We train women to go to a clinic, and they go, but there is no midwife. The need for a holistic perspective is something that has been learned the hard way, and this learning needs to transfer into youth employment programs.

Impact sourcing is a newer concept where socially responsible businesses are encouraged to hire youth from less privileged communities for lower end jobs, for example, at call centers. The Rockefeller Foundation is working in partnership with the private sector and institutes such as Digital Divide Data to train and place youth in these types of jobs and will expand to sectors outside of the business process outsourcing (BPO) field in their new Digital Jobs Africa program. In some cases, 100% of participating youth have been placed into formal economy jobs. The program is also looking at other high growth sectors (such as agriculture, manufacturing, and the hospitality industry) where digital jobs are growing. The Foundation collaborates with governments to support creation of an enabling environment that will allow these efforts to achieve scale.

Scale and speed are imperative

While scale is one factor, time is the other, according to one participant. Hubs and ground-up entrepreneurship can move the ball down the field, but this will take time. A grand and widespread effort is needed. In part, this can be boosted by identifying and building on existing infrastructure. Libraries can serve as information hubs for job seekers, financial literacy, digital spaces and places to find support for job training and seeking Telecenters are also playing a role in helping youth access information and build digital and life skills. More needs to be done with schools as well.

The need is too great not to scale, said one discussant, it’s imperative! We need to unlock existing funding within government as well. Governments can ┬ábe a source of demand, as they also have digital needs and digital jobs. In Kenya, for example, the government is digitalizing the records for the country’s largest hospital, and this is work that youth are doing. As new hospitals are built in rural areas, now they will have access to patient records across the health system. Similar efforts can be found and youth can be trained for these kinds of jobs.

What about rural youth?

While the possibilities are exciting, much of the work is anchored in urban and semi-urban areas, including the digital jobs programs and the innovation hubs. Participants asked whether it is possible to extend services out to rural areas to cast a wider net. The latest “big thing” was also brought up – can Google’s new wifi balloons solve some of the issue with connectivity, and will that be enough to bring some of these benefits to rural populations?

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