Monday, April 14, 2014

Lay foundation now for youth employment


Those aged below thirty years today have the highest levels of education of any generation in Kenya’s history. However, less than 7 percent of nearly one million young adults who enter the job market can find work in the formal economy.

Unemployment, especially among our young compatriots, is the defining socio-economic and political challenge of time. It is ironic that we are confronted with unprecedented levels of unemployment despite impressive GDP growth over the last decade. We are witnessing a steep rise in long-term unemployment among young adults. Moreover, a growing number of young college leavers are dropping off the job market to start off on their own, as entrepreneurs.

Two weeks ago Industrialization Secretary Adan Mohamed said the government had no record of new jobs created. He observed that 8 out 10 jobs were created by small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and that the government was working to provide an enabling environment for SMEs to create jobs. Mr. Mohamed recognizes that the government has not created jobs and it is not the purpose of government to create jobs.

Our education system does very little to prepare graduates for the work place. Our exam centric education is obsessed with curriculum and pays little attention to the attributes employers care about, such as critical thinking, problem solving, analytical reasoning, creativity, communication and teamwork.

We must review our curriculum, from Kindergarten to graduate programs, to respond to the needs of the 21st century. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink imagines a post knowledge-based economy where the economy demands workers who are adept in the attributes associated with the right brain: design; story; symphony, empathy, play and meaning.

The fitness of our education system must be judged by its capacity educate for an unknown future. Hence, we must pay more attention to helping students learn how to learn and critically engage with data and knowledge. This implies a radical departure from our didactic approach to education, which privileges learning by rote and mindless regurgitation. Such an approach would challenge the professors’ hubris of omniscience and ignite stiff resistance from the professoriate.

Basic education must focus on numeracy and literacy as well as nurturing creativity, teamwork, ethics, pluralism and citizenship. While the university must not be degraded to a vocational facility, it must pay attention to the vocational needs of graduates. It is possible to produce work-ready graduates with sufficient intellectual depth and inclination to a life of the mind.

There is need for partnership between tertiary institutions and industry to enhance skill formation and employability of graduates. Co-operative education programs can help achieve this. Co-operative education is a structured way of learning, which combines in-class learning with periods of work. Students gain work experience in their field of study, while earning credits that count toward their graduation. Such programs could also foster closer collaboration between industry and the academy, ensuring that degree programs are relevant to the labor market.

Agriculture can create millions of jobs. We need a movement for farmers of the future to interest and attract youth across the country to farming. Working with tertiary education, banks, agribusiness and institutions like Amiran Kenya to provide credit, know-how, modern technology and markets we can make agriculture profitable, sustainable and attractive to the youth.

We must align education and skills to the needs of the economy. The boom in construction sector will be hampered by the chronic shortage of technicians and craftsmen. The unprecedented expansion of higher education is constrained by inadequate supply of academics. The public sector faces an acute shortage of doctors nurses, teachers and policemen. Moreover, we do not have enough qualified engineers and technicians to drive our ambitious industrialization goals.

We can take immediate measures to get young people into employment. Here is where we could to start:
1.     Provide subsidies or tax incentives, tied to training and skill formation, to companies that hire young job seekers;
2.     National and county governments should create temporary positions for young job seekers with little or no work market experience in those sectors to provide unemployed youth with some initial job experience.

Even under optimistic growth scenarios it will take many years to provide large numbers of high quality jobs for the youth. Ultimately, we must to make less protracted the transition from school to work and accelerate job creation. The time to begin is now. 

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