According to the African Economic Outlook, African countries are working towards improving the quality and skills levels of their labour forces. The increasing recognition that higher technical and vocational skills are crucial in enhancing competitiveness and contributing to social inclusion, decent employment, and poverty reduction has been a strong incentive for reform. The term technical and vocational skills development (TVSD) refers to the acquisition of knowledge, practical competencies, knowhow and attitudes necessary to perform a certain trade or occupation in the labour market. For the scope of this report, TVSD corresponds to the broad UNESCO and ILO definition of technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

Competencies can be acquired either through structured training in public or private TVET schools and centres, or through practical experience on the job in enterprises (work-place training in the formal sector and informal apprenticeship), or both (the so-called “dual” training, involving a combination of work-place and institution based training).

It is generally recognised (and is key to the ILO Decent Work Agenda) that the development of relevant skills is an important instrument for improving productivity and working conditions, and the promotion of decent work in the informal economy, which represents the major employer in Africa.

Education and skills can open doors to economically and socially rewarding jobs and can help the development of small informal-sector businesses, allow the re-insertion of displaced workers and migrants, and support the transition from school to work for school drop-outs and graduates. Ultimately, developing job-related competencies among the poor, the youth and the vulnerable is recognised as crucial to progress in reducing poverty.

The development of job-related skills is, therefore, not only part of the countries’ human resource strategies but also of their economic-growth and poverty-reduction strategies. The inclusion of a skills-development component in country poverty reduction strategy papers (PRSPs) and national development plans is, thus, becoming more common.

Generally, investing in knowledge and skills is seen by many governments as the cornerstone of developing an employable and globally competitive work force.

A skilled and knowledgeable work force improves the investment climate because skilled workers create an attractive economic environment for investors. The returns to increasing investments in skills development tend to be high in rapidly growing economies, and can be low or non-existent in situations characterised by weak growth and poor governance. Among the most critical supporting factors of better skills utilisation will be the macroeconomic reforms necessary to promote growth, and thus expand the opportunities for business development and employment. Strategies to promote national growth should emphasise skills development for the sectors with the most promising employment prospects if they are to have a maximum impact.

Important reforms to promote vocational and technical skills have been initiated both in the formal and informal sectors in a number of countries reflecting a more integrated approach to education, training and employment. A renewed emphasis on skills development has also been echoed by the African Development Bank High Level Panel which has recommended skills development as a critical pillar of the Bank’s support to African countries in the 21st Century.

In addition, the number of enterprises capable of offering work-place training opportunities is limited, while many training institutions have poor delivery capacity and commonly lack funding. In turn, training programmes do not produce skilled graduates because training is of poor quality and the equipment obsolete. Many youths cannot access formal TVET, and few countries have training policies which emphasise skills development in the informal sector. Other obstacles include the low prestige of formal TVET in the eyes of the general public and parents who consider it to be an option suitable only for pupils who perform poorly in general education.

A special edition of the African Economic Outlook provides a snapshot of technical and vocational skills development in 34 African countries, exploring challenges and bottlenecks, highlighting good practices, and identifying priorities for further research. This review also explores specific socio-economic issues, such as increasing youth unemployment, devising appropriate TVSD strategies in fragile states, and managing the effects of migration on a country’s stock of skilled workers.

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