Closing Africa’s Skill-Gap Offers Private Sector Opportunities

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Written by D.A. Barber

Africa is facing a critical shortage of hands-on tech and engineering skills with a particular need for energy-related technicians to build and maintain projects all over the subcontinent.

The World Bank, World Economic Forum, General Electric and even China are among the entities that have recently stepped up to close the gaping tech skill-gap in order to get more sub-Saharans into the 21st Century workforce.

“Capacity and skills building are central to the development of Africa,” Patricia Obozuwa, Director of Corporate Communications for GE Africa told AFKInsider in an interview.

According to Obozuwa, GE is working with external organizations such as the Africa Leadership Academy in South Africa, Calabar Technical College in Nigeria and University of Dar Es Salam in Tanzania amongst others “on separate projects to provide internships, scholarships, build curriculum and upgrade learning infrastructure.”

Considering the magnitude of the problem, there are opportunities for more private sector involvement.

Speaking at African Union headquarters in May, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, Chairperson of the African Union Commission said “We have to train hundreds of engineers in almost every sector, town planners, agronomists to name but a few.”

And that means every sector. According to the World Bank: “Africa also suffers from a shortage of trained health workers who can provide high quality maternal health services. This may partially explain why Africa’s maternal mortality rate has remained so tragically high at 500 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.”

The types and scope of some of the current projects shows just how varied the approach is to tackle Africa’s skill-gap both by private companies and non-governmental agencies.

Company Tech Schools

Private tech companies long operating in sub-Saharan Africa have the biggest need for local technicians and have no problem funding current schools or opening their own to ensure a steady supply for their own Africa operations.

GE, which has a huge presence across Africa and is part of the US Power Africa initiative, is considered the poster child for getting involved.

“I think the GE seems to have taken the challenge quite seriously and are funding curriculum and training for engineers, which I think will benefit Africa more broadly and at the same time benefit GE,” Shari Berenbach, President and CEO of the US African Development Foundation, told AFKInsider in an interview.

Most recently in April, GE agreed to cover the $2 million to upgrade and equip the Government Technical College in Nigeria’s Cross River State. The school will supply technicians for GE’s multibillion dollar factory in Calabar that manufactures generator turbines, coaches for trains, aircraft engines, as well as hospital equipment.

“We see a skills shortage in technical workers not just in Sub-Saharan Africa but in many countries around the world where we work,” GE’s Obozuwa told AFKInsider. “Creating jobs and making people more employable are key. For this reason, it is imperative that as GE’s business grows on the continent, we empower more people by building valuable skills.”

GE isn’t the only international tech company setting up schools.

Since 2011, Samsung Electronics – as part of their global ‘Hope for Children’ initiative – has opened four engineering academies in South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Students in their final year of study at technical institutions are recruited based on their academic performance.

At the Nairobi-based Samsung Electronics Engineering Academy, electronic engineering student go through a one year training program that includes nine months of class work and three months of field internships. The company had invested $250,000 in the setting up of the academy and spends more than $185,000 annually. In 2013, 176 students graduated and 40 percent of them got employed within Samsung or their partner companies.

Qorax Energy, which provides sustainable electricity access to communities that lack energy infrastructure in East Africa, launched an initiative in Somaliland with the help of the World Bank to create an 8-month training program for engineers in renewable energy technology and entrepreneurship at Gollis University’s campuses in Hargeisa, Berbera and Burao.

The curriculum in based in part on the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners solar installation certification standards. Ultimately, Qorax’s goal is to create a trained local renewable energy workforce.

Targeting Youth

According to the African Development Bank, with nearly 200 million people aged 15-24, Africa has the youngest and most rapidly growing population in the world. By 2020, Africa will need 122 million jobs.

And the World Economic Forum notes that although Africa has seen annual growth rates of 5 percent in 2012-2013, the continent’s positive outlook is threatened by a skills mismatch which is contributing to high youth unemployment. Currently the rate of youth unemployment for young people is double that of adult unemployment in most African countries.

Mauritania is a good example. The World Bank estimates there are 350,000 out-of-school and unemployed youth in Mauritania alone looking for work.

The World Bank approved a $11.3 million grant in April for the ongoing Mauritania Skills Development Support Project to double the number of youth benefiting from better technical and vocational education and training every year by 2016 and reach 16,000 young people.

According to the Bank: “Nearly six out of ten young Mauritanians enter the labor market without the skills to succeed, leading to unemployment or low productivity among youth on the one hand and a major skills gap on the other, as employers struggle to find trained human resources.”