Graduate unemployment plays key role in elections

Benbella Akuffo Asare, a 24-year-old university graduate, has been looking for work as a teacher for over a year. He says he has applied for more than 500 jobs since graduating from the University of Education, Winneba in Ghana and finishing his mandatory one year of national service in 2015.

Critics often describe unemployed graduates like Asare as government moochers, indolent 20-somethings with no direction and an elevated sense of entitlement, but he says that description isn’t fair.

“[I’m unemployed] not because I’m lazy or unskilled,” said Asare. “There are no opportunities in the country. That is the problem.”

Unemployment is not unique to Ghana, but it is particularly widespread in the West African nation, especially among university graduates.

Although there is no concrete data concerning the number of unemployed graduates, the overall unemployment rate of university-aged students provides some insight. According to 2012-13 national household statistics, the most recent data provided by the World Bank, 19.4% of 18-24 year-olds are out of work and out of school.

Needed: 300,000 new jobs per annum

That number is likely to increase as “limited diversification and growing inequities in Ghana’s labour markets make it harder to create more, better, and inclusive jobs,” according to a recent report entitled Expanding Job Opportunities in Ghana. It is also estimated that Ghana needs to create about 300,000 new jobs per year from now until 2020 to meet the demands of the growing population and to avoid increasing unemployment.

These struggles have become a cause for growing concern for many Ghanaians as they prepare to vote in presidential and parliamentary elections on 7 December.

Amid threats from student groups and teacher-trainee associations to take to the streets in protest of their perceived worsening economic and employability prospects, the issue of joblessness has been a major point of contention between the country’s two main candidates vying for the presidency.

“It’s been very prominent in our conversations,” said Maureen Odoi, executive director of the African Aurora Business Network, a Ghanaian development agency that supports current students and graduates pursuing entrepreneurial careers. “The state of unemployment is really dire. You cannot understand the quantum of desperation or unemployment in this country, especially among young graduates.”

Graduates organise for change

With more than 24,000 members, the Unemployed Graduates Association of Ghana, or UGAG, is one of the leading advocates for unemployed graduates in Ghana. Since its founding in 2011, the group has held talks with stakeholders nationwide, including political parties and civil society organisations, to hold government accountable and propose more efficient job creation initiatives.

After three years of lobbying the government, UGAG achieved its biggest success in 2014 when President John Dramani Mahama established the Youth Enterprise Support, or YES initiative, to provide training opportunities to young entrepreneurs. A total of 107 people have benefited from the programme so far, but UGAG expects that number to increase once the government begins the next round of recruitment.

Mahama, who is seeking re-election, referenced the YES initiative in his party’s manifesto as one of his administration’s successes in addition to the hundreds of thousands of jobs that his party claims to have created in the last four years.

Despite these achievements, however, many university graduates remain jobless, growing even more disillusioned with politicians who often promise more than they can deliver.

“Even if their policies linking to job creation are attractive, the key thing is: Are they going to implement them when they’re in power?” said UGAG President Desmond Bress-Biney.

Restructuring education

Solving the unemployment crisis is not as much about creating jobs as it is about fundamentally restructuring the educational system, according to Bress-Biney.

“The graduate unemployment situation we find ourselves in is due to the fact that we as a country have not taken our vocational education very seriously,” he said.

Universities always have to adjust to changing workforce demands. As a country develops, new types of jobs in niche markets require workers with specialised skills. The problem is that universities cannot always immediately alter the way they teach and train their students to meet the fast-changing needs of the job market. It takes a well-thought-out plan that includes government and private sector input to address the skills gap among graduates.

“Solving unemployment in the American context or the German context will not work here,” said Bress-Biney. “You create jobs when you have a solution to a problem and there are thousands of problems in this country that can generate income. We need to solve unemployment in our own context.”

Technical vocational education

That begins, he suggested, by focusing on technical vocational education and training, or TVET, a form of practically-oriented education that “comprises formal, non-formal and informal learning for the world of work” and, according to UNESCO enables students to “learn knowledge and skills from basic to advanced levels across a wide range of institutional and work settings and in diverse socio-economic contexts”.

If universities want to prepare students to successfully enter a modernised and rapidly diversified job market after graduation, then investing in TVET can help expedite that transition.

In August, Ghana’s parliament passed a Technical Universities Bill that would authorise the conversion of the country’s 10 polytechnics into fully-fledged technical institutions. The purpose of the conversion is to diversify educational opportunities in a system that has offered the same courses and produced the same type of graduates for too long, according to George Afeti, the executive secretary of the National Inspectorate Board of Ghana and architect of the conversion process.

“Every country needs a diversified workforce and different kinds of graduates,” he said. “In Ghana, the tertiary education system is expanding, but all the universities are increasingly looking alike.”

Since Mahama approved Parliament’s bill in October, eight of the 10 polytechnics have been converted. Afeti expects the remaining two to follow suit sometime in the near future.

Negative perceptions

Although many educators and employers realise the importance of TVET, many students and parents view technical training as inferior to the traditional model of education.

“That perception is going to change,” said Afeti. “I’m confident that people will begin to look at graduates of technical universities more favourably and that they will attract a lot more respect and attention.”

Afeti also believes investment in TVET will eventually lead to a reduction in unemployment.

“Because training is going to be geared closely to the needs [of the economy] and because industry experts are going to be involved closely in curriculum delivery, the rate of employability will increase,” Afeti added.

That, however, will only happen over time if universities partner with the private sector and government to create an educational system that focuses on producing graduates with specialised and differentiated skills.

For now, the unemployed will continue searching for work in a job market that offers little hope. But with elections around the corner, some unemployed graduates remain optimistic.

“Every election gives me hope because there is always something at stake,” said Asare. “At the end of every four years, there might be a change and that puts [the politicians] on their toes.”