Local skills gap hampers Africa growth

A new generation, led by millennials, is mining the treasures in data and influencing workforce change. FILE PHOTO | NMG
A new generation, led by millennials, is mining the treasures in data and influencing workforce change. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

The surging high-tech, sharing economy is disrupting everything from transportation to food delivery. Technological advancements, such as digital money blockchain, are driving efficiencies in areas ranging from finance and industry to supply chains.

Meanwhile, cognitive computing and artificial intelligence are expanding the boundaries of the possible and turning science fiction into science fact. This is just the latest iteration in the natural evolution of how we work.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Second Industrial Revolution was powered by the sheer effort of the “blue collar” worker, a reference to the denims commonly worn by the men and women whose skilled labour anchored the economy.

Then came the “white collar” workforce, a term first coined by author Upton Sinclair to describe salaried professional office workers in corporate settings.

Today, data is the new natural resource. A new generation, led by millennials, is mining the treasures in data and influencing workforce change.


With the advent of new technologies, the role of the individual worker has begun to shift again, creating what has become known as the “new collar” jobs for today’s economy.

It is therefore not farfetched to talk of the “data workforce.” While these jobs are highly technical, many of them do not require a four-year college degree. The new collar workers are filling a critical skills gap globally and in East Africa.

Africa has approximately 200 million people between the ages of 15 and 24. By 2040, the continent is expected to be home to the world’s largest labour force, with an estimated working age population of one billion.

Yet many African companies cite a local skills gap as one of the major bottlenecks to growth.

In East Africa, the latest 2017 Human Development Index (HDI) shows that Kenya’s rate of unemployment is now equal to those of neighbouring Ethiopia and Rwanda combined, highlighting the paradox of economic policies that have sustained growth without generating jobs — culminating in poor distribution of the benefits of growth.

The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report says that nearly 40 per cent Kenyans of working age have no jobs — the worst level of unemployment in the region.

Additionally, the report says 39.1 per cent of the Kenyan population of working age are unemployed compared to Tanzania’s 24 per cent, Ethiopia’s 21.6 per cent, Uganda’s 18.1 per cent and Rwanda’s 17.1 per cent.

Some companies like IBM continue to invest heavily in the skills development for youth in the region.

In February this year, IBM launched an initiative dubbed, “IBM Digital - Nation Africa”, which provides a cloud-based learning platform designed to provide free skills development programmes for up to 25 million African youths over five years, enabling digital competence and nurturing innovation in Africa.

This $70 million digital skills initiative is designed to provide free education to as many as 25 million African youth.

The Watson-powered skills platform is part of IBM’s global push to build the next generation of skills needed for “New Collar” careers.” So far, IBM skills initiative has trained over 20,000 students and over 3,000 faculty members.

A number of graduates who have been certified by IBM have been able to secure gainful employment with a varied number of organisations in East Africa.

Nicholas Nesbitt, IBM East Africa general manager, says “IBM continues to implement a wide range of education projects across the continent as we believe that effective, high quality IT education is a key driver in spurring economic growth and the path towards building a 21st century workforce in Africa.”

For the youth of Africa to benefit from a cognitive future, there needs to be a much higher level of digital literacy. At the top of the skills pyramid are developers, who need to know how to create solutions that can leverage the power of cognitive, and entrepreneurs who are aware of the potential.

IBM Digital-Nation Africa is designed to help raise overall digital literacy, increase the number of skilled developers able to tap into cognitive engines and enable entrepreneurs and would be entrepreneurs grow businesses around the new solutions.