Skills deficit a barrier to economic growth – World Bank

Cameroon’s ambitions to become a middle-income economy by 2035 are more likely to be realised if the country invests heavily in specialised higher education in engineering, technology and computer-aided management, according to a World Bank report promoting a demand-led approach to skills development as a strategy for industrial take-off.

The study, Fostering Skills in Cameroon: Inclusive workforce development, competitiveness and growth, argues that Cameroon has a very small cohort of highly trained workers that could help the country to boost its technological catch-up agenda.

But the country also has “significant deadweight loss with respect to the available skills in the system and the use of those skills”, says the report, which was co-authored by Shobhana Sosale, development specialist for the World Bank’s Education Global Practice, and Kirsten Majgaard, economist for the World Bank’s Africa Region.

This deadweight loss means that university graduates in Cameroon have the highest unemployment rates – partly because most university graduates tend to opt out of lower-skilled jobs, and partly because of a shortage of jobs requiring highly skilled workers.

Many challenges

According to the report released on 3 May in Washington DC, the prevailing scenario is that most university graduates have generalised as opposed to specialised skills. Furthermore, most graduates avoid taking jobs in rural and remote areas.

The country’s tertiary education system is also deemed to be highly inefficient, with costs of education and training outweighing social benefits.

While the government has identified infrastructure development, wood processing, agribusiness, tourism, extractives and information and technology as entry point sectors to building an emerging economy by 2035, manpower challenges remain key barriers.

For example, Cameroon has the one of largest natural forests in Sub-Saharan Africa after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but professional workers in the wood industry constitute about 18% of the workforce, and only 3.5% are high-level university graduates.

According to the report, instead of exporting logs and timber, the country could increase the economic contribution of its forestry and wood industry. “Currently, there are not enough locally tertiary trained workers to transform forestry raw materials into export-quality products,” say Sosale and Majgaard.

The country also suffers from the absence of a well-organised structure for vocational and technical training for the wood industry, as well as a lack of forestry experts with knowledge about conservation, reforestation and forestry management.

The crux of the matter is that although Cameroon has several academic “garages” affiliated with universities to offer training in wood technology and processing, those institutions are not producing enough graduates and also offer few courses.

The centres have poorly qualified but highly paid trainers, making courses expensive but almost useless for graduates to obtain employment as highly skilled workers.

Skills shortages with graduate joblessness

“Among the primary challenges for Cameroon is the dearth of a qualified workforce in all specialised areas,” states the report.

“Although there are centres of professional training, technical training institutes and some programmes in universities, the quantity and quality of the trained workers are insufficient to meet the estimated demand.”

As in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, graduate unemployment is rife in Cameroon, standing at 50% for graduates aged 25 to 34 in possession of at least an undergraduate degree.

The report suggests that a high quality technical education could improve employment prospects for such cadres, while workers with a strong engineering and technology background have the potential to help the country achieve structural transformation.

While infrastructure development holds potential for graduate employment, the country lacks a wide range of specialists that include highly trained engineers and other skilled workers. Also, according to the World Bank most university graduates shun jobs in infrastructure development to the extent that most workers in the sector have only primary education.

“Apart from a shortage of qualified workers in areas such as engineering, accounting, governance and production of construction materials, there is a dearth of qualified environmental experts to conduct environmental assessments,” says the report.

Amid efforts to reverse the situation, the World Bank is urging the government and private sector to realise that infrastructure development has been shifting from labour-intensive capacity to high-tech processes that are increasingly computerised.

Consequently, more higher-end skills are needed, including skilled supervisory personnel and long-term skills development.

Some recommendations

The report warns there are no short-cuts to tertiary education skills development if Cameroon and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are to achieve economic growth and development.

It is urging Cameroon to redefine the mandate of its education system by increasing the emphasis on science and mathematics in secondary education, as well as improving the quality of technical education in polytechnics to address middle-level skills deficiencies.

There is also an urgent need to promote research in science and technology and foster innovation in universities.

According to Sosale and Majgaard, there is some disconnect over what is perceived as being able to improve graduate employment, as most students surveyed for the report had the opinion that high proficiency in English and French was the most important skill for securing a job. Another group had the idea that completion of a university programme was most useful.

Although most university students agreed that Cameroon had serious challenges in its quest for economic transformation over the next two decades, few expressed the view that creating skills for adopting and adapting technologies held the key to success.

Cameroon currently has about 250,000 students in its universities but just 5% are pursuing engineering – a level too low to support Cameroon’s development plans. This compares with 26% in business, 24% in law and 20% in the humanities.