The term ‘youth unemployment’ is bandied about with a mixture of hopelessness and glee by journalists, politicians, and development experts.
It is a term that elicits thoughts of large subsidies, delinquency and economic prosperity all at once, as within the word ‘unemployment’ appears the word ‘employment’, the goal that the journalist, the politician and the development expert all want for Africa’s youth.
However, youth unemployment is increasing, and not dropping, despite valiant efforts to counteract the circumstances that are leading to this continued rise. But are there solutions we’ve not given enough credence to? Could the answer be lying in front of us, waiting for us to sit up and pay attention to it?
Kenya’s youth unemployment statistics can be misleading. Recent fact checking by Africa Check of newspaper headlines claiming that 39 percent of Kenya’s youth are unemployed illustrated that this was not an accurate portrayal of youth unemployment, as it did not discount those ineligible to work, or those that were homemakers or even students that were of working age.
The actual current figure for total youth unemployment is 11.4 percent at the national level, according to the most recent official and verified statistics. It is expected that this figure, as with total unemployment rates, will be higher for 2020.
This is in part due to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has greatly exacerbated unemployment, and pushed economic development back significantly.
In informal settlements, where population density is vastly greater than in formal neighbourhoods, the number is generally considered to be much higher, with some sources stating it is as high as 70 percent, though these are not verified statistics.
Whichever way we approach it, the statistics highlight for all to see that there is a pressing need for a solution to this problem, and with the escalating economic devastation brought about by the ongoing pandemic, it is now more pressing than ever.
Some approaches to tackling the youth unemployment crisis that were previously considered viable options are now redundant, such as certain models of entrepreneurship and certain aspects of the service or hospitality industry.
Kenya’s secretary for Tourism and Wildlife, Najib Balala, says that 2.5 million jobs in Kenya’s hospitality industry were lost in the first five months of the pandemic. This means 2.5 million individuals have found themselves jobless, with little chance of finding another job any time soon with their hospitality skill sets.
So what solution is there to provide job opportunities to the millions of young people that find themselves without any income? And what of the hundreds of thousands of young people that enter the job market every year (estimated at 800,000 each year)? Even those that have university degrees take an average of five years to secure a job, so what hope is there for the lesser educated?
One of the most promising global industries, and fastest growing job sectors, is digital media.
From graphic designers, to game developers and animators, the demand for content is leading to a corresponding increase in the availability of paid opportunities for skilled young people. Add to this basic coding skills and skills around content creation and editing, and the possibilities are multiplied.
As Kenya, and Africa as a whole, become more prosperous, and there is greater demand for cultural products and digital content for both education and entertainment from a growing literate population, the industry grows.
The global digital media industry is expected to grow by 12.6 percent in 2020, and is poised for similar growth spurts in the years to come.
One solution is therefore to equip young Kenyan men and women with digital media skills. In this way they can pursue some of the livelihoods opportunities that this sector has to offer.
These skills are not standalone skills; more and more, every young professional is expected to have a basic grasp of digital skills, and those that do have such skills have the edge on the job market over those that don’t, even for jobs that are not specifically in that sector.
If left to choose between a receptionist that just has receptionist skills (admin, customer service, etc), or one that has receptionist skills and can also format and design documents and marketing materials, or upload content to a website, the choice is relatively straightforward.
We need to give young people access to both skills and to equipment, from a young age. Particularly in rural areas, children are woefully underserved when it comes to having access to computers, smartphones or tablets, and they are therefore at a distinct disadvantage in later life.
Digital media jobs need to be touted as a viable career option from a young age, and as a necessary basic skill at its simplest level. Parents also have a responsibility to support their children or dependents in pursuing the disciplines that they enjoy, whether it’s designing video games or producing films.
These are highly sought-after skills that are now becoming more and more in demand, and have the potential to set a young person up for even greater success than oversubscribed disciplines such as accounting, or teaching.
One of the most prominent skills that employers look for in this day and age is employability; that is to say soft skills, work-readiness, communications skills and work-readiness.
These soft skills, which are so highly prized in the workplace, also need to be bundled in with the technical training that our young people get, no matter the level of education they pursue.
In this way, no matter what age they leave school at, they should be equipped with the basic skills and the confidence that will allow them to secure a job or pursue entrepreneurship with confidence and a basic armory of employable skills. In this way we can begin to chip away at the unemployment issue.
It may not be the panacea that we are looking for, as no single industry can sustainably solve for youth unemployment without there being a risk of over-reliance on one economic stream, which we have seen is a damaging risk at all levels of the economy.
However, digital media has proven that it holds increasingly important job creation opportunities, and possibilities for not only solving youth employment but also contributing significantly to the nation’s economy.