Boosting youth employment in Africa during and after the COVID-19 pandemic

August 11, 2020
Three young women wearing masks sell medicine on the street during the COVID-19 crisis in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire.
Jennifer A. Patterson/ILO

The COVID-19 pandemic affects workers of all ages, but youth are disproportionately at economic risk. More than one in six young people, often young women, have lost their jobs since the beginning of this global health crisis. According to the fourth edition of the International Labour Organization Monitor: COVID-19 and the world of work, the pandemic exacerbates the existing vulnerabilities of youth in relation to work by disrupting their plans for education and training and delaying their transition into the labour market. Although data is scarce, with 93% of young people in Africa working in the informal economy, it can be assumed that African youth are and will be among those hardest hit by the long-term economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis.

Research highlights

  • In Africa, young people are disproportionately at risk of the COVID-19 pandemic’s negative impacts on jobs.
  • However, opportunities for young people are emerging in the digital economy.
  • IDRC’s research teams are updating their research design and data collection plans using novel and creative means to boost economic opportunities for youth through soft and digital skills development and work-based learning.

Since mid-2019, research teams supported by the Boosting Decent Employment for Africa’s Youth initiative have been working to generate new and rigorous evidence on how soft-skills development and work-based learning may improve job opportunities for young people. Working with 65 researchers from 18 research institutions around the world, the initiative aims to develop and pilot potential solutions to understand the best ways to educate young people and prepare them for the labour market.

In the nine countries of study (Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Nigeria, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda), the impacts of lockdown measures and the subsequent scaling down of economic activities have had serious implications on the labour market for young people. Import-dependent sectors and personal services like hair salons, retail, and tourism are among the hardest hit sectors — and those jobs are often performed by young people.

Adapting research strategies to a new reality

In a residential neighbourhood of Abidjan, the economic capital, a vendor serves garba, an Ivorian national dish of attiéké and fish, to his clients while wearing a mask during the COVID-19 crisis in Côte d'Ivoire.
Jennifer A. Patterson / ILO

In the midst of this fast-evolving and unprecedented context, research teams have been mindful of the implications on their research design and have taken measures to update their plans for data collection and analysis.

In some cases, data on the role of soft and digital skills that was collected prior to the pandemic may need to be revisited and adjusted in light of the new labour market. Opportunities related to the digital economy are emerging and offering new economic perspectives for young people. The ability to buy and sell goods and services online has transformed marketplaces and is in high demand since the beginning of the crisis, as are delivery services. Traditional jobs are being transformed, and new forms of work are being created, speeding up the digital revolution on the African continent. New opportunities are also arising as global supply chains reconfigure.

However, there is a concern that this changing demand will exacerbate existing vulnerabilities for different groups of youth. Young women risk falling further behind as they experience greater barriers to access, use, and ownership of digital technologies, as well as access to training in these technologies.

Research teams will include (where relevant) a dedicated COVID-19 lens to their methodological approach. For example, in Uganda, short survey modules will be added to gain a better understanding of how the lives of youth are impacted by the current pandemic. These surveys will complement the initial analysis to shed light on the role of soft skills in how young people weather the crisis. In South Africa, a dedicated COVID-19 employability survey will be implemented to learn more about the post-pandemic employment landscape, including whether and how business demand for young workers, skill requirements, and appetite for providing work-based learning opportunities are evolving. 

Data collection during the pandemic

The pandemic has impacted the way that data is collected in the field. In-person data collection activities were paused and needed to transition to phone/online surveys and interviews. These new methods have proven feasible for a number of researchers and some teams even reported cost savings and greater efficiency because of reduced travel time. The researchers also use new technology and social media to remain in contact with respondents and stakeholders, including through WhatsApp groups.

These methods also have shortcomings: some participants are uncertain of the interviewer’s identity or concerned about being recorded. Remote data collection may prove challenging for certain groups of young people, especially young women, because not all have access to the internet or control over their mobile phones. Research teams are putting strategies in place to ensure that no respondent is unfairly eliminated, which includes working closely with local organizations to provide safe and accessible spaces and with universities to deploy accessible virtual platforms.

These new alliances are generating creative solutions. “We were able to develop an e-learning platform in less than one month for all public universities. This was not imaginable one year ago,” said Augustin Aoudji, lecturer at the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Abomey-Calavi in Benin. Given the urgency and scale of the crisis, the people involved were quick to react and students obtained access to training materials, as was planned in the initial project design. This example demonstrates the unique opportunity to leverage digital innovations in a post-COVID-19 era.

Youth employment after COVID-19

A woman ironing a face mask and garment manufacturing factory.
KB Mpofu / ILO

The post-pandemic reality will likely offer new opportunities and challenges for the research teams. The pandemic’s socio-economic impacts highlight the importance of decent employment and further expose the risks and weaknesses associated with informality, as these jobs offer little employee protection.  

On the employer side, small and medium-sized enterprises now see and recognize the advantages of registering their activities to benefit from the safety nets and financial incentives put in place by governments. These businesses are among the largest employers of young people in Africa and could be the engines of an economic recovery. They will want to bounce back quickly after the pandemic, so benefits like cash incentives that help create opportunities for internships and apprenticeships may stimulate recovery. 

The COVID-19 crisis may provide an excellent opportunity to recommend adjustments or redesigns on national policies aiming to stimulate youth education and employment and to promote economic recovery that is effective, equitable, and inclusive. Government measures could prioritize support strategies for the private sector to ensure that firms adapt to new market circumstances and are more resilient after COVID-19.

This article is based on discussions from a virtual roundtable held on May 28, 2020, organized by IDRC in partnership with the INCLUDE platform and the International Labour Organization.