Qualifications and skills mismatch affecting jobs in sub-Saharan Africa

According to UNESCO’s International Institute for Educational Planning report indicates that, Jobs in sub-Saharan Africa countries are severely affected by qualifications and skills mismatches, making it hard for employers to find suitable job applicants, or develop the ability to forecast potential skills imbalances.

Dr Pablo Suarez Robles, an education policy analyst and labour market specialist at IIEP-UNESCO’s office in Dakar, Senegal, says in his study that common forms of qualification mismatches in the region are related to skills gaps and skills shortages.

IIEP-UNESCO released the study in December 2022. It is titled, ‘Assessing qualification mismatch in sub-Saharan Africa: Concepts, indicators, and data sources’, and states that the region has failed to create jobs that correspond to expected graduates’ qualifications and skills.

Studies highlight the problems

He said countries are experiencing vertical mismatches, a situation whereby most workers do not have the required level of education to perform the tasks in their chosen careers as, in most cases, not all skills envisaged in a particular profession are held by the graduates.

Most countries also suffer from horizontal mismatches, whereby workers’ occupations are unrelated to their fields of study. “Another limitation lies in that specialisation occurs at tertiary education, a level that a minority of students attain in Sub-Saharan Africa,” said Robles.

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The World Bank estimates that the current gross tertiary education enrolment ratio in Sub-Saharan Africa is merely 9.4%, which is well below the global average of 38%.

Robles noted that qualification mismatches in most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are usually driven by poor institutional environment, the lack of labour demand to absorb the increased supply and, above all, the poor quality of higher education whereby most of the envisioned skills are not properly covered in the curricula, taught, or tested during qualification examinations.

Even then, the study noted that a lack of reliable data on the education or skills required to perform specific jobs, as well as limited research capacity makes it difficult to assess or measure qualification mismatches across Sub-Saharan Africa.

In his analysis, Robles found that overqualification, or overeducation, a situation that occurs when the level of education and skills of a person in employment is higher than that required to perform a specific job, was widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa’s informal sector.

Similarly, he also noted that qualification mismatch is occurring in the region because of rampant underqualification, or undereducation, a state that emerges when the level of education and skills of a person in employment is lower than that required to perform their job.

Graduates’ performance substandard

According to Dr Harminder Battu, the dean for international student pathways at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, under-qualification tends to be widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and in other low-income countries where levels of informal employment are highest.

In a study co-authored with Keith Bender, a professor of labour economics at the same university, Battu said the informal sector in Sub-Saharan Africa accounted for 60%-80% of non-agricultural jobs.

Focusing on four countries – Benin, Kenya, South Africa, and Uganda – which were selected based on data availability, geographical location and socio-economic context, Robles noted that most tertiary graduates were in informal employment, mostly performing tasks that do not correspond with the level of their education.

In this context, the overqualification rate was highest in South Africa, whereby 30.1% of high-skilled workers with a tertiary education were in medium-skilled jobs, while overqualification rates dropped to 26% in Kenya and 17% in Benin. Although Benin appeared to have fared much better, Robles said overqualification among high-skilled workers was still high.

What this means is that many university graduates in Sub-Saharan Africa are working as clerks, sales workers, and in other occupations that don’t require advanced studies. “This is because high-skilled job creation within the formal sector does not keep pace with the growing number of tertiary graduates entering the labour market,” Robles wrote in the study.

Subsequently, overqualification in Sub-Saharan Africa was found to be associated with large work gaps and job dissatisfaction and frequently making young university graduates remain unemployed while they keep searching for jobs that would fulfil their career choice aspirations.

Not enough jobs

Reporting on the graduate unemployment situation, the study noted that persons with advanced education were the most affected as a result of the non-availability of quality jobs in sub-Saharan Africa. But, even more serious, long-term search for employment (probably one year or more) is being associated with knowledge and skills becoming obsolete in most African countries.

According to Robles, the longer unemployment lasts, the more skills and knowledge become obsolete and the harder it is for young university graduates to find suitable employment.

The study also highlighted the issue of underutilisation of labour among university graduates and other cadres with advanced studies, too often leading to time-related underemployment. For instance, in Uganda, Robles found that 12.2% of persons with advanced studies are less satisfied with their current working time and are keener to work additional hours.

Time-related underemployment, or part-time employment, among cadres with advanced studies in the countries that were sampled in the study was lowest in South Africa at 1% and about 9% in Kenya and highest in Uganda.

Although there is little evidence that links part-time employment in Sub-Saharan Africa to qualification mismatches, Robles pointed out that some employers within the informal sector had been relying on part-time workers to cut costs.

Like other researchers, Robles identified Sub-Saharan Africa’s bulging informal sector and other degrees of informality as the main pushers of qualification mismatches. “To avoid unemployment, educated people fall back on informal jobs for which they are overqualified due to the lack of skilled jobs in the formal economy,” Robles wrote.

Data rarely collected in Africa

The study described overqualification, or overeducation, as a form of resisting unemployment within the labour markets for jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa as well as being seen as a waiting point for graduates who cannot readily access jobs in the formal sector.

Still, measuring skills mismatches in the region had been difficult because of limited data collection and the fact that skill-specific surveys are rare in most African countries. According to IIEP-UNESCO, the situation had been further complicated by the large shares of unregistered enterprises.

But, whereas graduate tracer studies and employer satisfaction surveys could be useful for the analysis of qualification mismatch, as they directly link the employment situation of graduates with their educational experiences, they are too scarce and far between in many countries.

In one of his key recommendations, Robles urged governments and universities in Sub-Saharan Africa to rethink the idea of skills foresight that should be grounded on data, in order to understand the current skill mismatches and other labour issues related to graduate employment.

Towards that goal, IIEP-UNESCO recommended a step-by-step approach to measuring qualification mismatches and anticipating future skills needs of high-skilled personnel to match the job market in Africa, but how long that will take to start happening is hard to predict.

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