In this blog, we share research findings on a tertiary education model to close the youth employment skills gap in sub-Saharan Africa. We were scheduled to present this work at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) 2020 Conference, however, the conference has been canceled. We are therefore excited to share these findings with you here (for the full working paper, see here).
SNHU-Kepler students complete IDinsight testing in Kigali for an evaluation measuring the impact of the program on skills outcomes. ©IDinsight/Amy Chen
In this blog, we share research findings on a tertiary education model to close the youth employment skills gap in sub-Saharan Africa. We were scheduled to present this work at the Centre for the Study of African Economies (CSAE) 2020 Conference, however, the conference has been cancelled. We are therefore excited to share these findings with you here (for the full working paper, see here).
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of working youth in poverty: 69% of youth in sub-Saharan Africa who have jobs live in poverty (less than US$3.10 per day) and 35% live in extreme poverty (less than US$1.90 per day)1. The majority of youth in sub-Saharan Africa are unable to access high-skilled, formal-sector, full-time jobs.
While low employment in skilled jobs may appear to be a demand-side problem — employers offering too few jobs — it is at least in part driven by a supply-side problem: the perceived unemployability of youth in the region2. For the few skilled jobs that do exist, employers often import skilled labour3, revealing a gap between the skills needed in local labour markets and the skills that youth have when they enter the labour force.
Governments in sub-Saharan Africa have responded to the youth skills gap by investing heavily in Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) programs. Despite this investment, TVET programs rarely achieve the levels of success expected of them. One meta-analysis estimates that the average TVET program in low- and middle-income countries increased employment rates by only 2.3 percentage points at a cost of $17,000–60,000 per person employed3. Another concludes that “it is hard to find a skills training program that passes a simple cost-benefit test.”5 High program attrition and lack of flexibility to changing market demands are often cited as fundamental flaws of these programs6. Given the modest outcomes and the high cost per participant, TVET programs have proven an insufficient policy prescription to bridging the youth skills gap at scale.
Tertiary enrollment has risen more quickly in sub-Saharan Africa than in any other region over the last two decades,7 and if this trend continues it could supplant ineffectual TVET programs to help bridge the youth skills gap. However, as it stands higher education in the region is also failing to equip youth with the skills most relevant for local jobs. Many university programs in sub-Saharan Africa continue to emphasize memorization and rote learning over critical thinking and problem-solving8. Few tertiary graduates are equipped with the technical skills or skills in business and entrepreneurship that are desired in the local labor market9.
Blending skills-based training and tertiary education to prepare youth for the workforce
With neither TVET programs nor tertiary education sufficiently bridging the skills gap in sub-Saharan Africa, Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) partnered with Kepler to try a novel approach. SNHU-Kepler’s blended learning program pairs competency-based online coursework with in-person facilitation and career coaching. The curriculum, developed with feedback from local employers, uses high-quality online SNHU-branded coursework in career-specific fields to build skills relevant for the local labor market. SNHU-Kepler supports students through internship matching with local employers, career events, and students coaching through the job search process. In 2013, SNHU and Kepler piloted this program in Rwanda.
To assess the impact of this pilot program on labour market outcomes we designed and implemented a quasi-experimental evaluation. We matched the first two cohorts of SNHU-Kepler students, before they started their program in 2013 and 2014, with similar students starting at local universities. To identify comparable matches, we simulated the SNHU-Kepler admissions process for non-Kepler students and filtered out students who did not pass this process or who had already heard about SNHU-Kepler. We tracked the two groups five to six years after baseline, between three months and three years after they had graduated from their programs, to collect data on post-graduation skill levels and employment outcomes.
SNHU-Kepler graduates significantly outperformed the comparison group across most of the skills that we measured, including those prioritized by local employers: cognitive skills, English language and computer literacy.
SNHU-Kepler graduates in turn had better labour market outcomes, including being twice as likely to be employed immediately after graduating, and securing jobs with higher salaries, longer hours, and written contracts. Comparison students appeared to eventually catch up to SNHU-Kepler students in terms of employment rates, but SNHU-Kepler students continued to earn twice as much and work 33% more hours than their matched peers several years post-graduation.
This evaluation demonstrates that a blended learning program with a curriculum tailored to local labour market needs and in-person career coaching may help youth in sub-Saharan Africa bridge the skills gap in local labour markets. Since the SNHU-Kepler model relies on self-paced, online learning, it may also be more scalable at a lower cost than other university degree programs.
Since 2013, SNHU has implemented the model with new implementing partners in South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, and Lebanon, specifically targeting students with refugee status. It remains to be seen if the program will prove as effective at increasing skill and employment outcomes in these new environments. IDinsight is currently partnering with SNHU and the Scalabrini Centre in South Africa, to understand the impact of the program on skills development of youth with refugee status in Cape Town. This research will contribute to a broader understanding of whether such a program can have a similar impact in new contexts.
Interested to learn more about IDinsight’s research and recommendations for employment interventions? Read about our evaluations of YouthWorks’ work-based training program for urban youth in the Philippines and the Enhanced Public Works Program in Malawi, among others on our website.
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