By Dennis Zulu, Chief Program Officer, ILO Office for Nigeria, Gambia, Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The room was filled with about 50 excited Liberian youth, all sporting white T-shirts with the inscription “Graduate” printed on the back.
The young women and men had completed three-month apprenticeships with enterprises in the Liberian capital, Monrovia. For many of them, this was the first time in their lives that they had received any form of training, let alone a certificate.
And many had hopes their new skills would open the door to a bright future.
Unfortunately, if past experience was anything to go by, it would not be long before they would face the reality of unemployment head on.
After the ceremony, at which I had presented the certificates, one of the new graduates asked whether I could help him get funds to start a business. He had never heard of microfinance institutions but said he had tried – without success – to borrow money from friends and relatives.
He was convinced his newly acquired skills would enable him to start and run a successful business, and could then help his unemployed father provide for their large family.
I asked what options he had if he could not start the business. He said he feared he might have to go the way of many of his friends who had turned to a life of crime.
Liberia has been at peace for over a decade. But the high youth unemployment rate threatens stability in a country where about 70 per cent of the population is under the age of 30.
Liberian youth have had high expectations since the end of the civil war and demand jobs and improved livelihoods. But these demands have largely remained unmet, despite impressive economic growth rates.
The war deprived young Liberians of the opportunity to get an education: almost 40 per cent of Liberians over 15 years old have never attended school. Young people roam the streets, having none of the skills or experience needed for the few jobs that are available.
Liberia has a labour force of 1.13 million, but only 195,000 people are in paid employment.
Despite unemployment being so high, sometimes it is hard for employers to find candidates with the right set of skills. As many young people lack the numeracy and literacy skills required by technical and vocational training institutions, solving this situation in the short run is not easy.
On top of that, training schools use outdated curricula and have a lack of staff and physical infrastructure. They are therefore ill-equipped to produce graduates who are prepared for the labour market.
The informal economy is often the only available option for Liberian youth – from operating motorcycle taxis, to selling second-hand clothes.
Unfortunately, most of them work under precarious conditions and have little or no support in entrepreneurship training, business development services or access to finance. Consequently, they are unable to grow their businesses or work themselves out of poverty.
In my work I meet a lot of young Liberians who, despite these challenges, are still eager for opportunities to improve their education and ultimately secure good jobs or run successful business.
A lot is already being done by the government of Liberia and many other stakeholders with respect to policy reform and access to basic education, skills development, finance, jobs and income-generating opportunities.
The ILO has implemented successful programmes to generate employment, including the Poverty Reduction through Employment Creation, and three Employment Intensive Investment Programmes, focused on road infrastructure.
Given the magnitude of the problem, it is crucial that the issue be tackled urgently and that programmes have a wide enough scope to meet the hopes and expectations of my graduate friend and the many other Liberian youth looking for jobs.
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