Going into Labor: Youth and the West African Workforce

Photo: Vanguard News Nigeria

With about fifty percent of the Nigerian population between the ages of 18 and 34, it is evident that the younger generation of Nigerians can have a significant impact on the nation’s future, and much the same is true of many other countries in West Africa. It is not only in politics, however, that the significance of a younger generation can be seen. Across the region, youth have begun to impact the socioeconomic structure of West Africa, and efforts have been made to promote entrepreneurship and the integration of youths into the workforce. Youth unemployment, however, continues to be an issue across the continent. As such, it is important to examine the involvement of young people in developing economies throughout the region.

Africa as a whole has a significant unemployment problem, and the west is no exception. In Namibia, unemployment is at nearly 28%, and has been increasing since 2006. Between 2014 and 2016, unemployment in Namibia increased almost six percent. Nigerian unemployment is lower, but still rests at about 14%, which leaves millions out of the workforce. Across Africa, 37% of the working age population are between 15 and 24, but that same age range includes almost 60% of unemployed Africans. About 80% of employed Africans work in the informal sector as well, meaning that they are not guaranteed paychecks, benefits, or job security. Additionally, many in the region fear that eligible workers feel the need to leave Africa altogether due to the lack of jobs, leading them to take low-paying and dangerous jobs that don’t contribute at all to the regional economy. Increasing youth unemployment in recent years has led to protests and discontent, another negative effect of the situation.

Many regional efforts have been enacted to combat youth unemployment in West Africa. These projects, in contrast with what one might expect, tend to focus on the training of skilled laborers and technically-proficient employees rather than simply brute creation of jobs. In one instance, the local monarch of Ife, Nigeria established a youth training program aimed to instill technical knowledge in 200 local youths by training them in computer programming. A similar program headed by the Industrial Training Fund and the Nigerian Employers’ Consultative Association accepted 3,000 Nigerian youths for year-long training in 18 different trades and crafts. The Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency created another such program, through which over 2,200 Nigerian youths were trained in the particulars of maritime studies. These focused efforts have been both governmental and commercial, and have focused on skilled training. As a result, there are more skilled workers in Nigeria, but neither 200 students nor 3,000 puts a significant dent in the hundreds of thousands of Nigerians who are unemployed.

ECOWAS, an international body that works to organize West African economic efforts, has recently turned its focus to youth empowerment and employment as well. Having determined that the significant youth unemployment can be a threat to regional peace, ECOWAS has developed multiple programs to address the issue. The international organization hosts a youth council, which aims to integrate youth movements in the area for the socioeconomic benefit of all. As a greater body, ECOWAS has initiated two main projects. The first of these, labeled “Youth Empowerment and Orientation on Conflict Prevention,” aims to teach conflict resolution skills alongside more marketable and technical ones in order to maintain peace in West Africa and bolster the area economically. The second seeks to create more data about the status of youths in the region in order to better understand the issues surrounding unemployment. Recently, ECOWAS also created a “steering committee” composed of representatives from the fifteen constituent nations, whose goal is to consolidate youth empowerment efforts in West Africa and facilitate ECOWAS’s efforts to that end.

Many of the largest efforts toward eliminating youth unemployment in West Africa are fairly recent, and so it is difficult to gauge their success as yet. Youth unemployment in Nigeria is forecasted to rise in the coming years as the Nigerian population does the same. In fact, it is speculated that such an increase in population may be tied to the problem of unemployment, and the development of the Nigerian population is not slowing, with an increase of 80,000,000 people projected within the next 15 years. With new programs implemented, however, and with a new national and international focus on addressing youth unemployment, change may be in the offing for West Africa.