How we can make youth more employable by up-skilling

As Africa prepares for an imminent economic takeoff, her young people have a critical role to play in making it a reality. Their youthful energy is a key ingredient in unlocking the continent’s potential as the next frontier for growth.

However, more needs to be done to prepare young people, including those in Kenya, to take on this leadership role. This involves a full spectrum of activities – equipping them with skills, connecting them to employment, and setting them on the path towards a fulfilling career and life.

Kenya is a youthful society, with over half the population estimated to be under 25 years of age. Unfortunately, a significant proportion of these youth are unemployed -- 17 per cent, almost double the global average of 9.2 per cent.

Ultimately, we need more than just employment opportunities for youth. We also need youth who are suitably qualified and skilled to take up these opportunities.

Thus, the challenge for Kenya, and indeed the rest of the continent, is harnessing the contribution of all youth in order to enable them to contribute towards economic development—equipping them with appropriate skills for the present day job market.

The skills gap facing young people is a matter of huge global concern. Globally, it is estimated that more than 73 million young people are unemployed, and perhaps three times more under-employed. It is no wonder that during the recent UN World Youth Skills Day, the focus was on skills development to improve youth employment.

Granted, many young people leave the formal education system in Kenya every year with a variety of qualifications. However, a common complaint from employers – about 40 per cent, according to research – is that these young people are not qualified to fill even entry-level positions. Surely, there must be a way to solve this mismatch: to train and support young people so that they can succeed in entry-level jobs.

This was the motivation behind the founding of Generation by McKinsey Social Initiative, an independent non-profit, in 2015. So far, Generation operates in 16 cities in Kenya, India, Spain, Mexico, and the US. In each country we operate in, Generation’s approach is to evaluate the local labor market to identify entry-level jobs that feature either high scarcity or high turnover. Based on this, short programmes (4 to 12-weeks long) are developed to offer specific technical and behavioral skills and support services (such as stipends and mentorship). Our goal is to build a systematic programme that can offer young people the skills that will enable them to find satisfying work.

Here in Kenya, Generation is funded by McKinsey & Company and USAID and works with a range of local companies and community organizations. So far, more than 1,000 young people aged between 20 and 29, have completed the programme and 98 per cent of them have been placed in jobs. By the end of 2016, we expect to have placed more than 3,000 Kenyan young people into the labor market.

There are a number of important lessons we have taken away from our work thus far. First, employers need to be involved from the beginning in defining the program and the curriculum. This level of engagement means that young people learn the skills that are most important for the job and employers gain confidence in the program. Second, technical and “soft” skill training should be integrated to prepare young people for jobs in a more holistic way. Third, employers need to interview for skills, not resumes. When young people are tested on skills, and not simply their history, they can better demonstrate their abilities and employers can be sure they are finding candidates who can hit the ground running from the first day on the job. And last, employment and training organizations need to collect and use data effectively—by monitoring young people’s progress from the day they apply for a program into the workplace and beyond, programs can identify what works and what can be done better.

Equip young people with skills and connect them to employment opportunities, and not only do their lives improve, but the economy benefits as well. The dividend that comes from a gainfully engaged youth population is huge. In addition to this, access to a quality workforce is an important factor in making Kenya attractive for investment.

At the end of the day, our youth have an important contribution to make in building a better future for themselves and for their country. They, however, need to be empowered and their creativity encouraged through skills development.

The writer is the Programme Director of Generation Kenya.