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Schools must lay foundations to bridge Africa’s skills gap

By Aliko Dangote
18 October 2021   |   3:47 am
As African businesses, including my own, seek to expand and boost prosperity across the continent, we face a hurdle that we and our governments must do more to overcome. The majority of those entering the workforce lack the skills required to meet the changing needs of the global economy. Up to 20m increasingly well-educated young…

Aliko Dangote. PHOTO: REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

As African businesses, including my own, seek to expand and boost prosperity across the continent, we face a hurdle that we and our governments must do more to overcome. The majority of those entering the workforce lack the skills required to meet the changing needs of the global economy. Up to 20m increasingly well-educated young people are set to join Africa’s labour force every year for the coming three decades. As the World Economic Forum has argued, ensuring we have a strong ecosystem to offer quality jobs — and the skills to match — will be imperative if we are to fully leverage this demographic dividend.

By 2030, about a quarter of the world’s population under the age of 25 will be in or from Africa. So the economic prospects not only of Africa but of the world depend on the skills, capabilities and productivity of our youth. Employers, including Dangote Group, need employees with a mix of strong cognitive and problem-solving capabilities, soft skills and 21st-century — often digital — skills. Yet there is a large gap in all three characteristics.

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Let’s solve the learning crisis together. In a 2019 survey by PwC, 97 per cent of African chief executives said the lack of skills was affecting their organisations’ growth and profitability. We believe Africa will drive the future of the global economy, but if our youth do not have the skills, then how can they do so? This is one of the biggest problems facing African companies. For Dangote, bridging the gap requires spending extra time, effort and financing on training and upskilling staff, building recruitment pipelines with investments in colleges and, in some cases, hiring from outside the continent. Such extra costs hinder the ability of the private sector and the economy to grow and diversify.

We have been providing vocational training for young Nigerians for a long time. We started the Dangote Academy in 2009 in our Obajana cement plant, where we train more than 2,000 technicians every year. More recently, in partnership with the German Association for Mechanical and Plant Engineering (VDMA) and its Foundation for Young Talent, we have launched a technical training programme in engineering. Many businesses are taking similar steps, investing millions of dollars a year.

But relying on companies and postsecondary training programmes to address the skills gap is not enough. The problems begin earlier in the education system, and investments must go beyond upskilling adults. Government must take a larger role. Quality education relies on an extensive, interlinked, robust infrastructure and ecosystem.

The public and private sectors have a strong responsibility to accelerate progress/ Across Africa, nine out of 10 children do not achieve basic reading and numeracy skills by the age of 10, which creates wide-ranging ripples. A third of students do not complete primary school, more than half do not finish lower secondary school and almost 90 per cent do not make it to higher education. Local conflicts and wider insecurity in parts of Africa, with the attendant mass displacement, further reduces access.

The pandemic has closed schools and affected families’ abilities to pay for education. This no doubt has led to an increase in the number of children out of school, estimated at about 15m in Nigeria. Skills acquired early in primary school form the foundation for later learning and are fundamental to a productive, capable workforce and a strong economy A large proportion of job applicants not only lack basic qualifications but also struggle with simple computation and comprehension. This hinders their ability to take up jobs we are desperate to offer and impedes those already in employment.

Skills acquired early in primary school form the foundation for later learning and are fundamental to a productive, capable workforce and a strong economy. Gaining digital skills, or more rudimentary technical and vocational qualifications, is harder without basic learning. Governments and business together need to look to the future and set policies and plans to focus on foundational learning.

Investing in these basic fundamental skills would allow African countries to enhance productivity, promote greater inclusion and build a workforce that can adapt to the markets of the future and drive prosperity for all.

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Policymakers and business should provide retraining and upskilling to the existing workforce, and offer these in areas with vulnerable and disadvantaged populations. They should work together to ensure investments are made in high-quality and effective interventions. Governments and the private sector must also increase their investments in key infrastructure with an eye on the effects on education, from power to communication, water supply and housing, research and social amenities, and not discriminate by gender or disability. The private sector must give governments clear indicators of future work needs so schools can adapt. There must be increased focus on and investment in foundational literacy and numeracy so students can acquire the skills fundamental to employability.

Together, the public and private sectors have a strong responsibility to accelerate progress. They must work in partnership, make fixing the education crisis a top priority and commit to acting fast. Failure to do so risks perpetuating low productivity, instability in the workforce and poor socio-economic outcomes. Successful actions will mean greater prosperity for future generations, and are the only path to ensure a vibrant, prosperous, productive Africa.

Dangote is chief executive of Dangote Group. This article was culled from The Financial Times.