Youth is widely recognized as an important skills-building period, with education being a crucial part. Africa’s education systems could do a lot better at building the foundational skills for the future labour force. However, educational and skill-building institutions do not create jobs. Firms and people do.

Wage employment is created when new firms are created and existing firms expand production, finding new markets. This takes time, probably decades before most employment will be in modern firms in the case of African countries. Indeed, it could be argued that owing to better education policy than economic policy, young Africans are over-skilled for their economies, which is one reason why unemployment is highest among the most educated youth.

Lacking opportunities to use their skills, they are frustrated and vocal. The majority of African youth, of all skills levels, will have to seize opportunities and create their own living through self-employment, often with family members, on farms or in nonfarm sectors. A few people, typically 2-5 per cent of the labour force, will be able to create a growth-oriented business and employ five or more people. This challenges the massive push toward youth entrepreneurship as the solution to the region’s unemployment challenge. Sadly, youth businesses—operating in an unfriendly economic environment, with limited capital, networks, and knowhow—tend to remain small, livelihood-sustaining ones, serving local markets. More training does not solve this problem, unfortunately.

The focus on Africa’s youth as an instrument of development and the subsequent explosion of youth training and development programs is misplaced. Education is needed for more than earning money—it enables all aspects of youth transition from dependence to independence. But education is not enough, as youth need jobs and an opportunity at decent work; so do their parents, and so will their children.
All the attention on the perceived deficiencies of youth, and the interventions targeting them do not create jobs or increase opportunities in self-employment. Put simply, there is no silver bullet. Imagine instead if all the money being spent now on tiny youth projects with tiny results were spent instead on improved infrastructure, connectivity of information flows, trade facilitation, and better management in the public and private sector to facilitate formal sector job creation? Hard to do, but it is what youth really need.