Challenges’ Youth to Work programme equips graduates with skills to support growth of SMEs in Uganda

Kwenu juice bar, one of the businesses taking part in Challenges’ Youth to Work programme.

Uganda is facing a major challenge in youth unemployment. Official figures report that 80% of its population are aged below 35 years old, yet the country’s recent economic growth has failed to translate into new employment opportunities for young people. A recent study found that Ugandan young people face widespread issues of unemployment and underemployment, with educated youths suffering higher unemployment levels in particular. Since 2013, the government has boosted youth employability schemes, focusing on enterprise development, job creation and business skills training. Within these schemes, the growth of micro, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) — which comprise 90% of the private sector — has been an underlying priority because of its potential in job creation.

In line with the recent government schemes, the Youth to Work programme — delivered by Challenges Group and funded by Standard Chartered Bank FutureMakers Initiative in Uganda — intends to stimulate the business growth of SMEs and promote social impact and economic growth within the area of Kampala.

The objective of Challenges’ Youth to Work programme is to empower 40 young graduates with skills and opportunities to generate economic growth in a framework that promotes young graduates as implementers of change. In line with this vision, the programme strategically trains young people and places them within 40 local SMEs. In post, they undertake structured business diagnostics and other improvements to drive increases in business performance and unlock opportunities for investment and employment. These 40 young people then give back to their wider communities by supporting a further 400 students in workforce development and mentorship. Challenges’ programme repositions young people away from being stand-alone recipients of interventions, and towards becoming contributors to economic development, as well as influencers of their own access to employment and broader social impact. The aim here is to make young graduates stand out as dynamic actors for the country’s economic development while gaining considerable value and experience for employability.

Young graduates and colleagues working on the Youth to Work programme with Rena Beverages in Kampala.

Generally, approaches seeking to tackle youth unemployment issues have largely focused on youth unemployability (framing solutions for young graduates’ as a skills issue). However, these approaches have been inadequate, denoting a supply-side bias in the design of youth employment programmes among international development actors, and not addressing (or aligning programmes to) demand-side barriers to growth in the private sector. To address this, Challenges’ Youth to Work programme tackles the issues from both the supply side and demand side barriers of the labour market. This programme implements a more holistic approach that places SMEs’ business growth as a focal objective as well as providing skill-enhancing training to young people. At first, young graduates are provided with training comprised of internationally accredited business and management practices along with key soft-skills development. At the same time young people are placed within a local SME to undertake structured business diagnostics. Overall, Youth to Work both promotes the productivity-enhancing of the local private sector and provides young graduates with market-oriented practical skills for employability.

Participants of Youth to Work undertook baseline survey of businesses including Ugabus.

To get a better picture of young people’s employment perceptions, Challenges undertook a survey among the programme participants (20 male and 20 female). The following sections will show the data obtained and highlight several barriers to work that young Ugandan graduates have to face and how the Youth to Work programme is supporting them.

Problem: Firstly, participants outlined a perceived lack of skills being taught in Higher Education that are fully suitable for employment. Skills mismatches with employers represent a tremendous obstacle for their employability. As a consequence, young people’s degrees are undermined and there is a need of equipping them with the skills that are valuable for the workplace. When asked about which skills they consider the most useful, participants referred to communication skills (21%), knowledge of the business world (19%) and IT skills (19%). This is broadly reflected in the wider perceptions of skills most demanded by Uganda private businesses.

Solution: To help address this barrier, Challenges’ Youth to Work has equipped 40 graduates with practical accredited business-oriented skills including management, finance, leadership and project management. This training is pragmatically designed to provide specific business know-how that will be promptly applied and tested during the following placement in 40 SMEs. By placing them within a local SME and conducting structured business diagnostics, young graduates will also gain considerable soft-skills such as communication skills that are not honed through Higher Education and are demanded by the businesses.

Problem: Secondly, young graduates reported that they turned down job opportunities that do not correspond to their right opportunity. Around 50% of respondents had refused a job offer at least once, for several reasons. For example, the quality of the job position did not have a possibility of growth within the firm (30%). When asked about what they value most in a job position, young graduates portrayed the right job as being stable, well paid and appropriate for their level of qualification (48%). This is understandable given the high rates of precarious employment. Additionally, participants who worked at least once (65% of the total), have described their former job positions as unstable and underpaid. These instances indicate that the labour market mainly offers unsatisfactory opportunities to skilled graduates, thus provoking them to stay inactive and disillusioned until the right opportunities come along.

Solution: As a response to this issue, the programme aims at enhancing the business growth of 40 SMEs and therefore directly stimulating the demand for skilled jobs in the market. In this way, Challenges aims for more established and growing SMEs to be able to provide stable and fairly-paid jobs that also offer possibilities of growth within the organisations, and roles that will empower young people with more opportunities. This programme plays a key role in promoting a deeper understanding of the local labour market for the participants by providing valuable experience in the SME sector to young graduates. As a result of this, Youth to Work stimulates wider employment opportunities and progression within the private sector.

Problem: Thirdly, young graduates reported dissatisfaction with many of the opportunities currently provided by the labour market, and demonstrated a gap between the careers graduates aspire to pursue and the current opportunities the labour market offers them. Indeed, when asked about their ideal job opportunity, participants outlined that they would mainly prefer to work in sectors such as finance/insurance (35%). In addition, when asked about what sort of job they aspire for, 57% stated that they would prefer formal employment. While 43% of participants stated that they would start their own enterprise. Many of the corporate jobs that young people aspire to, do not widely exist in the current market context. Yet the entrepreneurialism presented by many of the young people might reflect a way to address the local labour market difficulties in finding the right job opportunity. Either way, leveraging the innate skills and potential of young people to drive forward economic development is essential if such jobs are to ever exist!

Solution: Challenges is enabling young graduates to leverage (and create) opportunities in the SME sector, and beyond. By placing effectively equipped young graduates within SMEs and exposing them to a business environment, the programme intends to leverage this aspirational gap and unlock opportunities that stimulate economic impact. Whether young people will go on to start an enterprise or be hired into an existing business, Youth to Work is actively providing a platform where young people can use this experience as a springboard into their careers. In summary, Youth to Work is bridging young people’s aspirations with employability while, just as importantly, fostering and generating significant social impact for the local economy.

The survey data outlined in this article has revealed certain potential barriers facing young graduates in the Ugandan labour market. By implementing the Youth to Work Programme, Challenges is tackling these complex issues through providing business training to 40 promising young people while simultaneously enhancing the business growth of 40 local SMEs.

By Michele Dimastrogiovanni

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