Skills shortages still blocking development – Report

Despite some progress in reducing education gaps, skills remain an important barrier for development on the continent, according to the Africa Competitiveness Report 2017. And while higher education participation in advanced economies is still growing significantly, in Africa it has only progressed from approximately 6.5% to 8.5% over the past 10 years.

The report, released in May by the World Economic Forum, leverages the research and expertise in job creation and urbanisation that have been carried out by its partner organisations – the African Development Bank and the World Bank – to explore what policies need to be implemented to enable Africa to reap its potential demographic dividend.

The report finds that the fact that a large fraction of the workforce is undereducated by international standards is an important barrier to private-sector development, particularly in the context of what is being referred to as the fourth industrial or digital revolution which requires a new and frequently shifting set of skills.

Higher education, innovation, institutions and infrastructure are among the pillars used to rank countries’ competitiveness.

Top three in Africa

In terms of country rankings, Mauritius, South Africa and Cape Verde – in that order – appear as the top three most competitive countries in terms of higher education and training in Sub-Saharan Africa. Botswana and Kenya appear at positions four and five respectively while Sierra Leone, Burundi, Mozambique, Chad and Mauritania constitute the bottom five.

The top three countries have a good set of institutions of higher education, policies, and have in place a sustainable path to prosperity, according to the report. They also make better use of talent in terms of the way in which pay reflects productivity and have made small but important upgrades in the quality of higher education.

Mauritius has managed to improve its talent pool past South Africa. Despite hosting six of the top 15 African universities, South Africa’s skills level is not improving sufficiently, the report says.

While South Africa had increased its secondary and tertiary enrolment rates by only a relatively small amount, in Mauritius both enrolment rates increased significantly. Over the past 10 years, South Africa’s higher education quality levels have decreased relative to the expectations of employers, while in Mauritius they have improved steadily.

Technical skills

Over the last five years, business leaders in Africa have consistently rated the workforce’s inadequate level of education as among the top six most problematic factors for doing business. There is also a growing shortage of technicians, engineers and other high-skilled workers.

“Expanding and improving technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes may play an important role in filling this specific type of skill gap,” the report recommends.

“Well-designed TVET programmes can in fact trigger productive employment by increasing the pool of technical skills available in a country and creating better links with formal employment,” the report notes and calls for better emphasis and reforms of TVET programmes that can supply the skills demanded by the labour market.

“Regional coordination among African countries to adopt common standards and recognition of qualifications, as well as reforms of immigration policies for skilled workers, can help the continent prevent shortages of skills in the short run,” recommends the report.

As the report notes, the African Union’s Plan of Action for the Second Decade of Education for Africa (2006–2015) encourages TVET as a policy tool to reduce youth unemployment.

“Although a few African countries have heeded this call, TVET programmes are still under-used in Africa. To change this situation, African governments need to deal with key factors hindering the sector.”

According to the report, a cultural attitude shift is needed to emphasise the importance of TVET relative to university education as well as more funding by governments to make TVET programmes more affordable to students. On average, only 5% of public education expenditure in Africa goes to TVET.