Filling the skill gaps

Inclusive Economy17 Nov 2014Karina Ufert

Skill gaps and effective pairing of education with labour market needs remain one of the most pressing obstacles for SME development in Africa. Improving education can on the one hand pave the way for recent graduates and unemployed to enter the labour market and increase the innovative and growth potential for small and medium enterprises on the other.

In the economic sense human capital is an important component, which enables the optimal use of technology to maximize corporate efficiency and profits and to compete or cooperate globally. Human capital development plays an increasingly significant role in setting the policy agenda and usually translates into calls for more investment in education and training, raising the education completion rates or aligning skill policies more closely to demand on the labour market. One example of such a policy is the EU2020 agenda, which has an explicit target of achieving 40% tertiary education among young Europeans by 2020. Furthermore, the African Union has outlined ambitious plans to revitalize technical vocational and higher education in its Education Plan for Africa 2006-2015. The desired outcome of such policies is a skill equilibrium scenario with a highly trained workforce absorbed by the relevant industry or service sector.

Aspirations to improve the skills base have a very clear socioeconomic rationale. In OECD countries, individuals with a tertiary education are more likely to be employed and work full time than those without.1 We can observe similar dynamics in the rest of the world, particularly in countries seeking to diversify their economic base by shifting from agriculture to labour-intensive manufacturing, tourism or other services. Those countries may experience a skills shortage with not enough skilled individuals to fill in the jobs created (e.g. Laos reported that only 58% of men in the workforce had completed primary school, in comparison with only 20% of rural women).2 Another extreme, which can be observed in a great number of countries, is underutilization of skills, when people cannot find decent jobs even after obtaining a certain level of post-secondary education. This is particularly true for young people who, despite increasing educational opportunities, are suffering the worst employment crisis in decades. How skill gaps play out in practice depends on many context-specific factors, e.g. structure of the labour market, and the level of political stability and security. Resolving skill mismatches requires greater coordination among policy-makers, employer organizations, trade unions and youth organizations at all levels, from global to local. Examples of such policies can be found here. In this article I would like to offer some recommendations on how to improve coordination at local level.

Curricula should be designed to match the desired learning outcomes

Education is no longer only about knowledge, but also about skills and attitudes. While working in South-East Asia, I observed an instructor writing on a blackboard and students repeating as a group what s/he wrote. When I asked students if they could remember anything from the lecture or would know how to use the acquired knowledge in practice, the answer was no. Mastering a discipline is important, but we cannot forget that the contemporary world requires effective problem-solving and communication skills, and a certain level of financial literacy. In education, it is becoming increasingly important to check what kind of competences we wish to develop and then critically assess whether existing curricula support those aspirations.

Teacher training

Looking again at the situation presented above, the instructor most certainly had positive intentions towards the students and their future personal and professional success, but lacked the skills to organize the learning process to make it interesting to them. It is therefore important to invest in teaching staff. International exposure for education institutions through joint training activities or visiting staff is a suitable way to convince them that things can be done differently. A lesson that I learned by organizing training activities in Russia, Kazakhstan and Myanmar is to engage not only teaching but also administrative staff, as they are essential in promoting continuous staff development within organizational procedures.

Role of the private sector

The private sector can play a role in two ways. First of all, it is important that it generates quality jobs and, secondly, large corporations and SMEs are dependent on skilled labour and should therefore consider their responsibility in contributing to the design and implementation of skill policies. Practically they can do this by participating in skills surveys to identify the gaps, providing opportunities for work-based learning through quality internships, co-designing curricula in industry-specific areas or cooperating in establishing business incubators. The challenging part for business, particularly in transition economies, is the trade-off between their immediate demands (job-specific skills) and long-term partnerships with education institutions to support teacher training or the renovation of education facilities.

Lifelong learning policies for access and success

Those who are able to complete a post-secondary education are lucky – not everyone does so. There can be numerous reasons for early dropouts: some need to help their families at the farm or local shop; some cannot pay for additional tuition hours to help them to cope with the study workload. For some, attending classes is a matter of risking their life. Providing opportunities for students to get their skills and qualifications recognized is essential for creating socioeconomic opportunities. Just to give an example, in the midst of the Syrian crisis, SPARK assisted the Ministry of Education of the Interim Syrian Government in organizing an international expert mission to observe the General Certificate Exam in Turkey, where approximately 36% of Syrian refugees are being accommodated. The mission prepared an extensive report, drawing the attention of the international community to the scale of the education crisis, which is available for distribution. Together with the University of Gaziantep, SPARK is currently managing a scholarship fund to help at least 80-100 students finish their education or continue it abroad, and provide them with guidance about their future academic careers.

Role of NGOs

While formal education systems are usually quite rigid and their “modernization” takes time, both education providers and learners may wish to explore the opportunities, offered by the third , i.e. civic, sector (or development partners). An example could be teacher training academies and entrepreneurship training, such as those that SPARK runs in Mali, Liberia, Myanmar and other countries. What is important in designing and delivering such training programmes is to understand that external (in this case NGO) intervention is designed to support the education institution and not to replace it – we cannot take the ownership from the institution itself, undermine their own efforts or, even worse, impose a cultural agenda. After all, education is still a predominantly national competence and many governments are sensitive about that.

Education for citizenship

But human capital as a way to maximize profits is not the only purpose of education. The education system may “produce” excellent mechanical engineers, doctors or weavers. But what if they lack social and civic competences, cannot deal with people from different cultural backgrounds, or ignore inequality, power abuse or corruption? A module on citizenship education can become an integral part of teacher training, as is being done in the Philippines.

Another approach is to recognize, that student initiatives (e.g. the education transparency index in Serbia), including participating in student self-government, are am excellent opportunity to experience citizenship and not only learn about the concept in theory.

To sum up, developing and implementing education and skill policies is a resource-consuming exercise with a very few quick wins. On the other hand, ignoring the importance of quality and accessible education for socioeconomic development will cost significantly more in the long run.


  1. The OECD average employment rate for 25-64 year-olds with a tertiary education is approximately 83%, compared to 55% for those with a below upper secondary education (OECD Education at a Glance, 2014).
  2. Event report “OECD 6th Skills Expert meeting of the employment and skills strategies” (OECD 2014)