Youth unemployment is one of today’s most pressing challenges, particularly in Africa. But most skills development and employability solutions are expensive and hard to scale. While cost recovery models are starting to emerge, they are not used widely by the private sector.
The African Management Initiative (AMI), an Africa-based social enterprise, has designed a low-cost solution to help young people transition into employment. By leveraging technology and an innovative approach to peer-to-peer learning while focusing on the specific needs of local labour markets, the model also demonstrates real value for employers.
Africa — particularly Kenya — faces a youth employment crisis.
The continent’s youth population (15–24) will double by 2050.
In Kenya, 17 percent of youth are unemployed and 77.9 percent of all workers are in informal employment.
At the same time, there is a skills mismatch: African companies are struggling to source the talent needed to drive the continent’s growth. In a McKinsey Institute study, nearly 40 percent of employers cite a lack of skills as a top reason for entry-level vacancies going unfilled for months. The skills shortage is particularly acute in middle-income countries like Kenya, according to African Economic Outlook research, which notes high un- and under-employment but large numbers of vacancies. Labour-market mismatches are affecting university graduates, but are most prevalent among young people with only some secondary education.
As a provider of workplace learning across Africa, AMI has been hearing from employers about the challenges they face sourcing talent for entry-to senior-level roles. Employers lack senior and middle managers to implement strategy, drive growth, and build competitive organizations. But they also struggle to find entry-level workers with appropriate soft skills, work readiness, and maturity for even relatively low-skilled jobs such as customer support and sales.
Once they have hired staff, they struggle to find practical and relevant training to help them improve real-world, on-the-job skills that will yield improved performance. This is particularly challenging in entry-level jobs, where return on investment and retention is low. When you add the cost of the intensive training required to bring staff up to speed and the often-minimal impact of that training, this can be prohibitive for companies that want to grow.
Both external research and AMI’s own research and experience on the ground indicated that employers need employees with both market-specific technical skills and more general, transferable soft skills, but it’s often the latter that are harder to teach.
A report by SAP Global and the Aspen Network of Development Entrepreneurs (ANDE) found that employers required soft skills like communication, critical and analytical thinking, and problem solving. This report suggested that soft skills are also the most helpful of all skills in ensuring that youth remain employable.
This need for transferable skills has been reflected in research conducted by other stakeholders working on youth employment in Africa and beyond. And many programs, such as Harambee in South Africa, International Youth Foundation’s Passport to Success in more than 50 countries, and Education for Employment in the Middle East, have set out to address this gap through interactive and practical high-touch programs, often with excellent results. However, these programs, and the sector more broadly, face a structural problem. Effective employability programs are extremely expensive. AMI research suggests that they typically cost US$750–1,000, but sometimes over US$2,000 per person, and very little (if any) of that cost is borne by the private sector. This limits the potential for scale.
AMI identified market needs and designed a flexible program that leverages mobile technology to reduce delivery costs without compromising on quality. The program helps unemployed youth prepare for, and find, meaningful work.
AMI used its blended learning (both online and offline) approach to pilot its Youth Employment Accelerator program.
The pilot demonstrated a model that could reduce the cost of training disadvantaged youth at scale to US$350–400 per person, approximately 25–35 percent of what traditional programs cost.
Understanding the problem by speaking to the individuals who are affected the most.
Building a flexible, accessible solution to meet the needs of both employers and the unemployed youth.
Test the solution with a pilot group of 200 young people to see if it delivers for both employers and participants.
AMI developed a set of online content that could be used broadly, with a low-cost model for local and industry-specific adaptation. It then tested a blended delivery and employment placement model with an initial 200 young people in Kenya. AMI used the findings to build a business case and financial model for a program that is radically more efficient at scale than existing work-readiness programs among disadvantaged young people, with the potential for cost recovery from the private sector to further enhance sustainability.
Rather than trying to train for hypothetical skill gaps, AMI partnered with employers to identify the skill gaps and then train for them. AMI began by researching the local market in Nairobi to target niche industries where there was a strong and growing demand for entry-level workers, with opportunities for long-term, sustainable employment, rather than informal positions. The goal was to identify a specific industry for this pilot, but also to develop a model that could be easily and cost-effectively adapted for different industries in different markets.
Based on an initial market scan, AMI had planned to focus on last-mile sales and distribution agents in the solar sector. However, more in-depth research indicated that these grassroots sales and distribution jobs offer little security and career progression for the target group, and potential value for a cost-recovery model was low. AMI focused instead on customer care and sales representatives in high-growth sectors. These roles are often in call centres and are rapidly expanding as large distribution networks rely on central locations to support sales, technical issues, and outbound and inbound sales.
In parallel with AMI’s research on sector and role, they also conducted extensive employer research to identify themes across different roles and sectors (33 interviews with individuals in 25 organizations). They identified the skills needed from an effective recruit, described the mindset of successful entry-level employees, and identified the characteristics of those that stayed in a role and performed well.
AMI also conducted research among youth, interviewing 50 unemployed young people between 18 and 25 from the poorest parts of Nairobi. Fewer than 10 percent had worked before and less than 25 percent were actively looking for jobs. They were asked about the key challenges they faced when hunting for a job, their main concerns, and their dream jobs.
What emerged across both sets of interviews was the focus from employers and youth on broad skills, knowledge, and attitudinal gaps, rather than technical and functional issues. Employers seemed to prefer running technical training in-house, and have become good at this. But they reported that they struggle with training for the more complex transferable skills. Youth are mostly battling with basic navigation of the job market, such as workplace etiquette, knowing how to find jobs, and a general lack of experience.
This focus on transferable skills is closely aligned with what several successful youth employability programs have found. AMI identified an opportunity to build on this best practice by addressing the lack of soft skills and basic understanding of the work environment, while also innovating a delivery and business model to drive down costs.
“We can train for functional skills internally — that’s easy… But what’s difficult is to find people with the more general skills, like communication, customer service, listening, and professionalism.”
AMI developed a content and curriculum model designed for rapid scale at low cost, while still allowing for customization to ensure relevance to the local labour market. It also leveraged its experience in blended learning to develop a lower-cost model without sacrificing results.
AMI developed a set of broad “attitudinal” courses that addressed the core concerns of both companies and recruits. These were then combined with a few targeted industries and role-specific “bolt-on” courses, allowing AMI to reuse 80 percent of the content in any location, sector, or role. By taking this approach, AMI could create a highly scalable program that was still relevant.
AMI combined the cost-effectiveness of online courses with the impact of experiential learning during a six-week, full-time training program. The program was designed to provide recruits with practical, applicable tools to accelerate their job search, advance their job, or build their career path. It then supported them as they put those tools to work in simulated and real environments.
The focus on tools, application, and reflection was particularly important for those who had never worked. The experiential learning components, role-playing with peers, and workshop reflection were particularly impactful.
While most programs focusing on practical application are heavily weighted toward face-to-face delivery, up to 70 percent of AMI’s program is delivered through online courses, practical downloadable resources, and virtual teams, while still including key components of learning such as practical application, feedback, and reflection. This allowed AMI to significantly reduce the costs while maintaining learning impact. The online courses allowed the organization to reduce overall workshop time and use this more expensive mechanism for higher-value feedback and practice, instead of lectures on theory. In addition to technology, peer-led team projects were used, both to reduce more expensive formal, facilitated workshop time and to drive impact and learning. Team community projects, where participants planned and then bid for small grants to implement small community improvement projects, received positive feedback from participants and from the placement company representatives that acted as panel judges. They provided an opportunity for the practical application of many of the concepts, including project planning, presentation, teamwork, and problem solving.
“Absolutely wonderful and transformational training. Its very nature kept me involved and interested. I liked that it provided practical structures, tools, and strategies to implement the learned ideas and skills.”
Using tech to improve selection and attrition: Alongside the main blended learning program, AMI also experimented with a free online-only program called the Online Employment Accelerator. As expected, learning and placement results from the online-only program were significantly lower than the blended groups. However, technology proved to be a great tool for reducing costs and attrition through pre-selection. An online selection course was also used to identify candidates that would qualify for the program. The introductory course served two purposes: to set a standard to ensure young people would commit to online learning and put in the effort needed to apply learning, and to ensure that they were interested in the subject matter, format, and quality of learning by providing them with a teaser/introduction to the program. This also enabled AMI to generate a pool of potential alternative candidates to replace dropouts at key program milestones, offsetting inevitable attrition.
Placement: After the end of the program, AMI connected recruits with employers in its network to enhance their chances of getting a job. This stage of the program was more complex than expected, and various lessons learned are explored below. But despite challenges, both with the approach and the execution, approximately 70 percent of young people either found a job or returned to full-time education.
Manager and post-placement support: As well as training recruits, AMI provided post-placement support for companies, including training for those managing first-time recruits. Initial feedback from this part of the program was positive. Recruits were also supported post-placement with additional on-the-job courses — such as problem solving and effective communication — as well as a final learning lab to allow them to discuss and provide feedback on key challenges they had encountered since beginning their careers. A hotline remains open to address any challenges they may face and AMI is continuing to receive periodic updates on progress and new recruitments.
Despite significantly lower costs, AMI proved that an innovative approach to blended learning can deliver positive results for unemployed youth. AMI exceeded a target of training 200 young people, with 254 recruits, all aged 18–24 and from low-income households, either graduating from the program or securing work before the program ended.
Around 70 percent of graduates either found a job or went back to full-time education.
The learning impact of the program was also high. One hundred percent of participants who responded to a survey would recommend the program to others and 100 percent were either a lot (89 percent) or a little (11 percent) more confident that they could find a job.
Participants demonstrated an 18 percent improvement in core competencies identified by employers as “an issue” for first-time recruits. Completion of online courses across all graduates was 84 percent during the learning program, much higher than average global completion rates for open online courses of five to 12 percent. Participants, on average, registered knowledge improvement of 21 percent (prior to the final exam across all graduates and courses), and downloaded 14,679 practical resources and tools from the AMI platform, showing very high levels of engagement.
‘‘What I enjoyed most in the program was how to properly write my CV and how to conduct myself in an interview. This enabled me [to] secure a job at [an outsourcing company].’’
At scale — four cohorts of approximately 600 young people at a single location — AMI believes it can deliver the program at just US$350–400 per person. Employability programs typically cost around US$1,000 per person, and sometimes as much as US$2,000. Cost per person for these programs increases with the vulnerability of the youth targeted, as well as the length of the program, and if AMI were to run Youth Employment Accelerator in a rural area with lower education levels and technology access/literacy, there would be an impact on cost. However, by starting with the premise that employers and participants should eventually cover most of the training costs, the model only includes what is really required and valued by the market, and, as a result, is both impactful and more sustainable at scale.
Focus on the right skills for the right job. It may sound obvious, but employability programs need to train for skills that employers want. This means identifying sectors with large numbers of quality jobs for youth, identifying the skills required within those sectors, and building training programs accordingly.
The most committed participants will find a way to get online, with the right support. AMI’s selection process required participants to find a way of getting online to complete the first course, which tested for commitment and resourcefulness. To reduce the access barrier for participants, AMI optimized its platform for basic smartphones and arranged for access at local Internet cafes. This worked well with the target market and very few reported problems with access. Testing is necessary to see if this approach would also work in rural communities and/or different markets.
Placements are costly and demand a unique and dedicated skill set. Although placement rates were strong, AMI identified a requirement to better understand the needs of employers upfront, and better navigate the complexities of hiring to connect recruits with employers. For example, dedicated staff are required to better understand the needs of companies upfront and programs need to look at partnering more formally with specialist placement companies. This is a unique skill set and job profile that non-profits often lack.
HR departments don’t always have a clear understanding of their own costs. As a result, it’s difficult to benchmark costs or present a comprehensive cost recovery model with real evidence of return on investment for companies. More incentives are required for companies to identify and share these costs to help benchmark training programs and identify appropriate subsidies.
Managers need training too. AMI provided training for managers who were responsible for entry-level staff and offered post-placement support for new employees. New recruits were supported post-placement with additional on-the-job courses as well as a final learning lab to allow discussion and feedback on key challenges to support on-boarding and retention efforts.
Starting with cost recovery in mind changes program design. As workforce development programs layer in additional content, support, and accompaniment, the models become expensive and difficult to replicate. It also becomes difficult to identify the most impactful components. Starting with the premise that employers and participants should eventually cover training costs changes how employers are engaged, content is prioritized, technology is utilized, and costs are tracked.
Programs need to work hard with youth on attitudes toward finding work. There is still more work to do on the unrealistic expectations of recruits. This was addressed specifically in the program, but still too many recruits were waiting for a “better job offer” despite little or no experience, failing to complete application processes, and struggling with basic communication. This was vastly improved toward the end of the program, and employers told AMI that their recruits were better on this score than their peers, but better performance here would further improve placement rates.
This program indicates that blended learning can deliver placement rates that match the best employability programs at a cost of just $350-400 per person, if rolled out at scale, and depending on local cost conditions. The model is scalable and can be quickly implemented wherever sufficient absorptive capacity for entry-level candidates is identified in local labour markets. The next step is to work on a stronger case for cost recovery from the private sector and, potentially, from participants themselves.
Over time, AMI expects to pass on at least 25 percent of costs to the private sector, eventually increasing this percentage and reducing the public subsidy further. The organization also plans to experiment with asking participants for a small fee to be deducted from their first month’s salary. At scale, this program could have a measurable impact on youth employability across Africa.