Like many newly-minted graduates before me, I realized very quickly after leaving university that the types of jobs available to me were not as plentiful as those for friends who had studied science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
I learned the hard way how important it is to have the skills that employers are looking for.
It isn’t just the study choices of students that need adjusting. In Kenya, where I currently live, most universities have yet to adapt their curriculums to meet the growing demand for Information and Communications Technology (ICT) skills. Three years from now – the length of an average first degree course – Kenya expects to have 17,000 ICT graduates available. Yet a report by Youth Impact Labs estimates that by 2022 employers will be looking for 95,000 ICT professionals. Somehow this gap will need to be plugged.
It’s not just a Kenyan, or an African, problem. Worldwide, no less than 79 per cent of global CEOs are concerned about the availability of key skills. Among African business leaders, this figure jumps to 87 per cent.
I was lucky. I found a good job that also fed my interest in employment and skills issues. And, after I began working at ThinkYoung (a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to involve youth in decision-making processes and provides decision-makers with high-quality research on key issues affecting young people), it didn’t take me long to understand how this skills gap affects more than profit and growth statistics for businesses and economies. Perhaps even worse damage is done to our irreplaceable human capital, because having the wrong skills is a major contributor to unemployment among school leavers and graduates.
If we can correct this mis-match, the potential benefits are enormous.
The world faces a frightening youth employment challenge – over the next two decades 15-20 million young Africans are expected to join the workforce every year. At the same time, advances in technology offer an opportunity to boost labour demand in the digital economy in Africa, so helping to tackle the youth employment challenge. We just need to create a sustainable pipeline of talent with the right, future-forward, skills, while at the same time working with governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations to build an enabling environment to create jobs for youth.
There are many ways to fill this gap – self-learning, tech hubs, online courses and workshops can all contribute. In 2017, the ILO partnered with the International Telecommunications Union to launch the Digital Skills for Jobs Campaign under the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth, with the aim of equipping five million young people with digital skills by 2030. This includes mainstreaming digital skills into school curricula, establishing comprehensive on-the-job training systems, and encouraging private and public sector job creators to employ young people in digital-centric jobs. There will also be a strong focus on fostering youth-led digital entrepreneurship.
I’m also happy to know that not all is lost for non-STEM graduates, like me! Retraining and upskilling programmes are available. Among the resources is the Decent Jobs for Youth Knowledge Facility, which collates experiences gathered from many different partners to facilitate learning related to the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of youth employment policies and programmes, including on digital skills and jobs.
As a non-STEM graduate, I now find myself advocating for more STEM education and training, particularly among schoolchildren. And I am comforted to know that one is never too young or too old to learn new things.