Following a decade of military conflict and a political stalemate, Côte d'Ivoire is experiencing an economic upturn, with Gross Domestic Product growth estimated at 8% in 2017. The country hopes to regain its role as an economic driver in Francophone West Africa. However, it faces a major challenge: the economic integration of its youth.
Young people under 35 make up 77% of the population in Côte d'Ivoire. They account for nearly three-quarters of the unemployed and live in a precarious economic situation. The probabilities of unemployment are even greater for youth living in the capital or for women, and the outlook is discouraging.
Last March I took a two-week leave from IDRC to work with the Agence Emploi Jeunes (AEJ) [Youth Employment Agency], the government's main employment support agency. The experience helped me take stock of the economic future and challenges facing the country's youth and to think about possible solutions to this problem — a research theme of special interest to IDRC in Africa.
The academic profile of young job seekers
The studies I read to prepare for my time at AEJ revealed a disparity between academic training and the needs of the labour market, regardless of the young person's background.
On the one hand, it is estimated that 15% of young people have completed higher education. This educated group fights for the few jobs offered within the government, at large private companies, or at the headquarters of international organizations. Those who have benefited from study abroad programs are often selected for these highly coveted positions. For others, it is difficult to find a job commensurate with their education and the time and money invested.
On the other hand, a large proportion of young people are poorly educated, with just over 50% of them failing to complete their primary education. They stagnate in informal, low-paying jobs, leaving them with uncertain and difficult working conditions. These types of informal jobs not only slow the Ivorian economy but, first and foremost, they also exclude these young workers from the benefits of the current economic upturn.
In the middle of the academic spectrum, it is estimated that less than 10% of students receive technical and vocational training. Companies have difficulty finding qualified young people for science-related jobs or manual labour. However, even though technical and vocational training can provide quicker access to jobs, this type of education is perceived as being less valuable.
Possible solutions for greater economic integration
To overcome this massive challenge, the AEJ supports programs tailored to various educational backgrounds. For the less educated, a paid manual work program including sanitation and maintenance jobs for public spaces is offered. It also provides training on general workplace skills to support youth in their job search after the program. For other candidates, the AEJ relies on paid internships to help young people find their first jobs and break into the job market. However, the national employment support agency is unable to meet the growing demand. In 2016 it had more than 93,760 job seekers registered to their online platform and only 1,671 job vacancies published.
It seems obvious to me that the state cannot meet the youth unemployment challenge alone. Structural changes are necessary to gain support from other sectors. It is up to the government to improve the country’s business climate, particularly by reducing red tape and enhancing the formal economy. On the academic side, improving the supply of technical and professional programs adapted to the needs of the market should be considered to restore a better balance between supply and demand.
In terms of youth, entrepreneurship seems to me to be a concrete solution that young people can pursue on their own. The most recent surveys of the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor in Francophone West Africa confirm that young people want to become entrepreneurs, and not just out of necessity. They see promising business opportunities and are inspired by the success stories of thriving entrepreneurs in the country and in the sub-region.
The accessibility of social media networks and technological innovations have shifted youth perspectives in a short period of time. I noticed that new terms such as start-up, incubator, and fab lab have made their way into Ivorian youth vocabulary. They are also learning about the concept of social entrepreneurship, aiming for positive social impacts in addition to financial profitability.
I think it’s essential for the government to continue to relax safeguards, administrative procedures, and access to funding — known to be the main obstacles to youth entrepreneurship. Emphasis should be placed on an entrepreneurial culture from an early age, with financial literacy classes, student entrepreneur clubs, and access to a mentoring system.
Entrepreneurship provides a tangible alternative to young people struggling to find their place in the traditional labour market. But to effectively tackle the intersecting constraints experienced by this new generation of entrepreneurs, we need to improve our understanding of the challenges they face, including gender-based challenges; reduce the barriers to business creation; and improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem. That's why IDRC continues to support research activities that seek to provide young people with more promising opportunities for the future.
Mylène Bordeleau is a program management officer for IDRC's Employment and Growth program.