STEM Education as a Solution to Youth Unemployment

The story of Africa’s booming economic growth has dominated the press for a while. Africa is the fastest growing continent economically, real income per person has increased by 10% over the last 10 years, and GDP is expected to grow by 6% per year.

Amidst all this encouraging growth lurks a number of significant challenges that threaten to derail it.

Ticking Time Bomb

Africa faces an unprecedented youth unemployment crisis.

Having the youngest youth population in the world of 200 million aged between 15 and 24, increasing youth unemployment poses a significant threat to sustained economic growth and the growing political and socio-economic stability of the continent.

South Africa’s Statistics SA released the official unemployment rates for the southern African country, which currently sit at 25.6% as per the third quarter of 2013. Unemployment is calculated based on active job seekers, thus when including those who have given up on searching, termed discouraged job seekers, the true unemployment figure for South Africa sits closer to 40% .

According to Statistics SA, nearly 50% of the 40% who are unemployed, are between the ages of 14 – 25.

Unfortunately, South Africa is not unique. Youth unemployment in North Africa sits at 30%, and this is even higher in some Sub Saharan African countries. Zambia’s finance minister, Alexander Chikwanda, states ‘Youth unemployment is a ticking time bomb’.

Another Crisis

While youth unemployment is an often touted challenge for the continent, another, equally severe crisis is brewing.

The growing skills shortage, particularly in management and specialised skills such as in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), has reached crisis level.

Though an estimate suggests that there will be a 75% increase in the demand for expatriate skills in the next 3 years, one of the challenges of this skills shortage is that there is little quantification of the nature, depth and extent of the skills shortage across the continent and in individual countries.

Clearly the dichotomy of high youth unemployment and a growing skills shortage indicate a mismatch between the type of skills in demand and what can be supplied by the labour market.

PSTEM Foundation

Demand vs Supply

Based on current indicators, the growing economic resurgence in Africa is driving a demand for specialised skills.

These include skills in fields such as mining, manufacturing, engineering, retail, agriculture and medicine.

Foreign direct investment and growing entrepreneurship opportunities in natural resources, retail and telecommunications across the continent require skilled geologists, technologists, engineers, technicians, and financiers.

Compare this demand to the skills that Africa is churning out; the largest contingent of social sciences and humanities graduates of any region in the world with 70% of graduates in Sub Saharan Africa holding a social science or humanities degree, according to a study by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) This study surmised that African universities are failing to prepare African youth for the labour market.

It would be unjust however, to merely view this as a university or tertiary education challenge alone. Universities produce what the education pipeline fosters, and the education pipeline across Africa is leaky and has failed to keep up with the changing nature of the economy and work.

Foundation

The challenges start at a foundational level with the quality of foundational skills.

Foundational skills, are literacy and numeracy skills developed through primary and high school education. These basic skills allow for future training and skills development without which the attainment of adequate employment and or the participation in entrepreneurial activities isreduced.

A lot has been written concerning the challenges of basic education across Africa, not least a curriculum that is still heavily colonially biased and does not reflect Africa’s current reality; infrastructure concerns; a shortage of of qualified teachers; and minimum on-going development of educators. However, It is important to note that a significant portion of the "blame" for the lack of strong foundational skills is simply laid at the feet of governments and schools, and not enough focus is given on the other, equally prominent reasons such as societal attitudes to education, particularly STEM education and the role that communities need to play in supporting governments and schools in delivering education.

To transform Africa's capacity to produce more qualified individuals particularly in STEM, African society needsto radically change its attitudes to STEM.

In Africa, STEM is considered elitist, for the intelligent and above the capacity of the ordinary African scholar.

This attitude is reinforced by teachers and schools that advocate for advanced maths and science for the top performers only, and a curriculum that provides a more watered down syllabus for the majority of students and learners. Compare this with South Korea, where advanced science and maths education are considered a staple for all students, and great performance in these subjects is attributed to hard work and not intelligence. South Korea, by the way, is amongst the best performing countries in education and particularly in maths and science education.

Communities, parents and business must also play a bigger role in education. The diverse nature of education and the curriculum today, and the challenges faced by many of our schools due to the legacies of colonisation and or apartheid clearly demonstrate that it does our children a great disservice, to limit education, particularly formal education, purely to the domain of schools. Parents and communities need to be actively involved, providing optional avenues of learning that substantiate the roles of schools.

Research shows when communities, parents and schools work together to support learning,students perform better academically and stay in school longer.

The single most important predictor of student success is the family’s attitude that learning is a positive, joyful and valuable experience. Hence, parents, family and community are critical components of any effective education pipeline.

For most of Africa, this presents a problem, as our historical background means that most students in formal education today are often the 1st generation in their families and communities to receive formal education. Thus parental and community involvement in education is limited. Organisations such as the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA) and the P-STEM foundation could be part of a resolving this challenge.

Research in the US shows that most science is learned outside of school in a variety of informal education programs, such as those offered by science centres, public libraries, community centres, aquariums or zoos. Expanding our communities capacity’ to provide out of school programs in maths and science, and promoting community involvement in these programs can go a long way in changing the perception that education, and particularly STEM education is purely the domain of governments and schools.

Lastly, it will be important to include entrepreneurship into the standard school curriculum. This should include the technical skills of running a business, the softer aspects of managing change, dealing with failure and self-motivation with an intention to equip our youth with the skills to opt into starting and running businesses of their own.

This will in the long run increase the number of job opportunities available overall and provide a rich pipeline of African based products and businesses solving local problems and challenges.

The solution therefore to the leaky education pipeline, requires a more integrated approach to education, involving government and schools, supported and substantiated by parents, communities and community based organisations. This will go a long way in alleviating the challenges of having a labour market that meets the demands of the economy. Ultimately, the skills shortage itself could work as a means of alleviating the youth unemployment crisis and provide a sustainable boost to economic growth.

Cover Image Credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development

Comments