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Unemployment persists because we are misdiagnosing its cause

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Added 25th January 2019 01:31 PM

In short, the situation is bad but it is not as bad as you have been made to believe. The real problem is underemployment (27%) – many of us can’t find jobs that pay our worth or use all of our productive time gainfully.

Benjaminrukwengye 703x422

Benjamin Rukwengye is the founder and CEO, Boundless Minds

In short, the situation is bad but it is not as bad as you have been made to believe. The real problem is underemployment (27%) – many of us can’t find jobs that pay our worth or use all of our productive time gainfully.

By Benjamin Rukwengye

January is education month in Uganda. The news cycle goes in a frenzy – from examination results to graduations and teacher/lecturer strikes. Now, the Members of Parliament (Opposition) have now joined in.

The MPs are suggesting that A’Level be scrapped for vocational (Technical) education. Unlike education whose moment in the limelight is brief, the debate on unemployment just never goes away. So we are used to drastic calls like this and continue to wonder why the problem will not go away – and might actually get worse.

As is wont to happen in this country, the MPs are misdiagnosing the problem and administering wrong prescription. Here is how:

You have probably heard that 83% of Uganda’s youth are unemployed First, that ludicrous statistic defeats logic. The country would be a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions if 8 out of every 10 young people you know had no jobs. UBOS puts the figure at 9.4% or thereabouts, which if you think about it, makes sense.

In short, the situation is bad but it is not as bad as you have been made to believe. The real problem is underemployment (27%) – many of us can’t find jobs that pay our worth or use all of our productive time gainfully. So where has that mindboggling statistic (83%) persisted? Read on.

The same people who quote it also argue that our education system is the reason for the high unemployment. They seem to think that causation implies correlation but they are wrong. Unemployment (jobs) is an economics question, although education might be able to provide the answers.

Reports indicate that the economy can only create about 10,000 jobs per year. It is that small. So it doesn’t matter how super qualified our graduates are – lawyer, accountant, social scientist et al – there just aren’t enough jobs to go around. So even if you trained millions of the best artisans, plumbers and electricians, they will still not find jobs – because who will pay them?

If the MPs are so concerned about unemployment, they should start with legislating for favorable business and investment policies – for especially local investors. It is hard to start and run a business (and therefore create jobs) in this country – especially if you are Ugandan. There’s a reason why startups in Uganda fail at the same rate as they start and that is what MPs should be dealing with.

(Young) Ugandans can create jobs but not if their innovations and competitive advantage are strangulated by deterrent taxes, obscene interest rates, operational costs like high rent and internet charges, a lackadaisical government policy on access to markets and same such.

But that is not to say that just because education is not the cause of unemployment, it therefore has no role to play in solving the challenge. Education done right can be an answer to this challenge.

The World Economic Forum, in its 2016 The Future of Jobs report, projected the top 10 skills in demand by 2020. That report should make for interesting reading for any serious Ugandan employer but especially, for people interested in education reform.

The soft (intellectual) skills listed in there such as Problem Solving, Critical Thinking, People Management, Collaboration, Negotiation, etc if incorporated in education curriculum and teaching methods can be catalysts for great innovation and entrepreneurship – which leads to job creation.

I know this for sure because we are already experimenting with them at Boundless Minds, where modules for our Senior Six Vacation and University students programs have seen mentees develop social entrepreneurship projects and solutions from identifying common challenges.

But initiatives like Boundless are simply responding employer needs without necessarily dealing with the systemic challenges. To teach these skills and get job-creating entrepreneurs and innovators out of them, we must start at the lowest level possible – Primary school. Education is not the problem but it can be a major contributor to the solutions (if we do it right).

The writer is the founder and CEO, Boundless Minds

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