Critical Skills for Employability in Africa

By Shubha Jayaram, Results for Development

Critical Skills for Employability in Africa

Two days before our international participants were due to travel to Nairobi, Kenya for the ISESE Africa Skills Development Conference, I woke up to the headlines: “Flights suspended after fire destroys Jomo Kenyatta International Airport terminal.” Our team had planned for all sorts of logistical hurdles from visa hiccups to yellow fever vaccines, but we had not anticipated that the international terminal to the gateway of East Africa would be destroyed. Nevertheless, things worked out: the Kenyan airport authorities were swift to erect makeshift tented terminals, and we and our fellow international travelers were soon on our way to Nairobi.

The two-day ISESE Africa Skills Development Conference on August 13-14 2013 was an opportunity to showcase Results for Development Institute’s two years of research on the Innovative Secondary Education for Skills Enhancement (ISESE) project, and was the counterpart to the Asia convening held in New Delhi, India in January 2013. This project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, has worked to examine employer needs, explore existing curricula systems, and identify existing innovative skills delivery models in 12 countries across Africa and Asia.

The Asia convening, co-hosted with the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, was an opportunity to share our research with stakeholders in South and Southeast Asia. Additionally, it was a mechanism to connect policymakers, innovators, and researchers and identify important lessons for how to effectively structure and support successful and sustainable skills delivery models in Asia. We hoped that the Africa convening would cover similar ground, and our objectives were threefold:

(i) explore policy recommendations and initiatives that strengthen the link between education and employment at the secondary level,

(ii) identify opportunities and strategies for incorporating ICT training for digital jobs into formal and non-formal education programs,

(iii) draw from shared experience to prioritize actions that domestic policymakers, the private sector, educators, employers, and international organizations can take to promote skills development and youth employment.

We had invited about 40 key stakeholders who are active in the space, and participants included Owate Wambayi, the Director of Vocational Education and Training from the Kenya Ministry of Education, Peter Njioka from Safaricom (one of the largest employers in the region), program managers from innovative organizations such as Mindset Teach, Go for Gold, Educate! and Digital Divide Data, as well as representatives from multilateral agencies such as the World Bank, African Development Bank and the Asian Development Bank. This very brief list simply gives a flavor of the diversity of participants in the room and helps illustrate the engaging, spirited discussions on how to better link education to employment.

For me, there were four important observations from the conversations and presentations over the course of the event.

First, with the world’s youth unemployment standing at 12.6% and projected to rise, the need to make education more relevant for employment opportunities is crucial (ILO 2013). Doing so must involve curricula reform, with focus needed on making it relevant and connected to the needs of employers. Employers such as Safaricom spoke of the emphasis placed on innovative, creative thinkers; indeed, it is clear that industry needs to collaborate with education providers to drive curricula to strengthen the non-cognitive skill base. Innovative ways of blending curricula with current issues and life skills now exist and it is vital to ensure that such initiatives reach a greater number of youth.

For instance, the Young African Express magazine is a scholastic ‘living magazine’ that provides youth at the upper primary and secondary school level with relevant, practical livelihood and life skills. Material covered is topical and up to date, and topics include life skills, health and personal hygiene, and the environment. Each topic area has a clear curriculum link and has been approved by the Kenya Institute of Education for use in schools. Schools hold subscriptions to the magazine, with teachers able to design lesson plans and allow students to access up-to-date, current information. This innovative magazine seeks to connect what is taught in the classroom with the wider world, so increasing the relevancy of the subject matter and ensuring that students can absorb practical knowledge and information.

Second, teachers must be supported in improving pedagogy and moving towards a more learner-centered model. Curricular reform is only a piece of the puzzle, and educators must be aided in updating their teaching methods to move away from rote learning and towards a more dynamic, experiential classroom approach. During the conference, we heard how programs such as Mindset Teach are working to share best teaching practices, and provide cost-effective teacher development support. The South Africa-based organization produces short 15 minute videos which are shared on DVDs and free-to-air TV. Importantly, real examples are used: actual teachers are videotaped in their classrooms to demonstrate best practices and also to illustrate challenges even they may face.

Third, participants highlighted that reforming assessment systems is a crucial first step to maximizing the effectiveness of both curricula reform and teacher training programs. Examination systems are often geared towards achieving the highest test scores, and should instead focus on developing core competencies. This will allow teachers to experiment with new pedagogy and innovative, experiential teaching methods within the classroom; in turn, this will have the knock on effect of fostering transferable, soft-skills such as communication, creativity and leadership in youth.

Lastly, it was inspiring to hear from managers of innovative programs that are successfully training youth for employment, whether through imparting ICT skills, entrepreneurial skills, general non-cognitive life skills (for instance, communication and leadership) or often, some combination of all three. Although I have been leading the ISESE project for the past two years and consequently have become familiar with many of these organizations, hearing the stories of young people touched by the programs was still so impactful.

From the faces around the room, other participants felt the same way. Many of them were completely unaware of the presence and work of other innovative programs – even those operating within their own country – and it was clear that lessons and ideas were being eagerly shared over the course of the two days. Importantly, policymakers – often so removed from smaller-scale models and innovations – were able to witness skills development programs in various forms across the continent.

Ultimately, for me the conference was a unique opportunity to kick-start these conversations and connections, and to bring together a mix of stakeholders who are all equally motivated to equip today’s youth with relevant skills for employability in the 21st century workforce. We hope to continue to play a role in these conversations, and to leverage our research and resources in this area to support policymakers, educators, employers, and innovators.

More coverage on the Africa Conference is here:

Additional information on the ISESE project is available on our website and our Phase I synthesis report is also online. We are currently finalizing our Phase II in-depth report on innovative models for skills delivery, and that will be available online in the coming month.

Editor’s Note:

This is the 2nd in the series of blogs about Education, Employment and Entrepreneurship, produced by Pearson and The Global Business School Network (GBSN).

Pearson is the world’s leading learning company. For more information visit and follow them on Twitter (@Pearsonplc)

GBSN is a nonprofit organisation that works to address development challenges through management education. With 60 leading business school members on 6 continents, GBSN works with businesses, schools, governments and development agencies to strengthen the pool of business and management talent in the developing world. For more information visit and follow on Twitter (@gbsnonline)

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