Youth unemployment begs urgent attention

High profile national challenges, coupled with high-octave politics, have succeeded in effectively overshadowing what is perhaps Kenya’s greatest headache—the problem of youth unemployment.

These domineering national problems include corruption, tribalism, and fractious politics exacerbated by early campaigning, to mention but a few.

Yet the challenge of youth unemployment commands urgent attention, as it is perfectly capable of great social disruption unless urgent comprehensive measures are taken to address it.

Various government policies, including Article 260 of the Constitution, all define youth as those between 18 years and below 35 years.

According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics’ (KNBS) Kenya Integrated Household Budget Survey 2015/2016, the youth constituted 32 per cent of the population, or 16 million out of a total population of 50 million people.

What this confirms is that the Kenyan population is strikingly youthful. Kenya has what is often referred to as the “youth bulge.”

This “bulge” is a double-edged sword. As numerous examples from history show, the youth can either be a blessing – known as the “youth dividend” - or a curse depending on how society handles them.

From an economic perspective, the youth are a national resource, representing 55 per cent of the labour force—a great opportunity to accelerate economic growth when engaged productively, being, as they are, one vast reservoir of education, skills, energy, creativity and innovation.

In politics, the youth constituted 51 per cent of registered voters in 2017, signaling their rising interest in national issues. But the youth can be a source of debilitating civil strife, particularly if their collective frustrations meet with high political mobilisation.

The greatest challenge confronting Kenya is therefore how to create meaningful economic opportunities in order to forestall unrest among the youth, about 800,000 of who are entering the job market every year, according to data from the Kenya Youth Enterprise Development Fund.

The youth face not just a lack of jobs, but also underemployment, vulnerable employment and inactivity. Some are compelled to migrate to risky foreign labour markets. Others are lured into alcohol, drug abuse and violent extremism.

While a concerted effort by the Government and its international development partners has put in place several resources to aid the youth in accessing gainful activities, most youth have to contend with a lack of collateral and rigid bureaucracies.

Additionally, the youth also find that the skills they acquired in school or college do not match the skills required in the marketplace.

However, not every problem the youth face is externally driven. Some youths shun perfectly productive activities like agriculture.

There is evidence that the Government is aware of the huge challenge before it and has been taking measures to ameliorate the situation. These include various legal, institutional and policy frameworks taken by successive governments to address issues affecting the youth.

The last five years or so in particular have witnessed implementation of various education reforms among them fee subsidies to enhance access, teacher training and technological upgrading to improve quality, and the transition to competency-based curricula in basic education and technical, vocational education and training to improve relevance.

In all, government strategy documents show that there are “at least 62 programmes” targeting “job creation, job linkage and training.” Together, these programmes alone represent a total of more than US$900 million in multi-year commitments from a full range of actors. Efforts by such institutions, while helpful, must acknowledge that young people require specific skills and values that will help them cope and thrive in the knowledge economy.

These skills are known variously as 21st Century skills, social skills, character traits or attitudes, employability skills, soft skills, life skills, interpersonal people skills, transversal capabilities, socio emotional competencies or transferable skills.

Failure to impart these skills is the Achilles Heel of the Kenyan education system. Yet lack of these skills contributes to a lack of creativity, innovation, ethical behaviour, problem-solving skills and sheer staying power or persistence.

The recently introduced competence-based curriculum, which has met with a lot of opposition, is aimed at correcting these anomalies in our education system. To address the issue of job creation for its youth, the Government has come up with the Young Africa Works (YAW) initiative which will address opportunities for youth participation in the economy more comprehensively.

Developed in conjunction with a range of local and international partners, the YAW is closely aligned with the Big 4 Agenda and Vision 2030.

Mr Ngugi teaches at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Nairobi. [email protected]