Vocational training: a vital element for accessing decent work in a changing labour market

And other takeaways from our 2024 Policy Conference on the Future of Work in the Global South

The future of work is uncertain for millions of people in the Global South, particularly the youth.

Many countries—especially in Africa and Latin America—are facing the challenge of high rates of youth unemployment and more young people hoping to join the workforce every year. Indeed, by 2030, more young people will be entering the African workforce each year than in the rest of the world combined, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Added to this, the development and adoption of artificial intelligence (AI) is reshaping the global labour markets and the world economy in ways we do not yet fully understand.

On June 5, 2024, PEP hosted its annual Policy Conference to discuss two distinct aspects of the Future of Work in the Global South.

“Providing decent jobs and livelihoods for the growing young populations of the Global South is vital. Also what those jobs will look like in the coming decades will be very different to what has come before. So being prepared will be key.”

- Carol Newman, Chair of the PEP Board of Directors, introduced the day.

This year we brought together 166 researchers, practitioners, international experts, representatives of donor and international organisations, and policy actors from 29 countries. “I am really happy to welcome so many people in person for the first time since 2019,” said Jane Mariara, PEP’s Executive Director, during brief welcome remarks.


What Works for Youth Employment in Africa

Identifying specific actions to improve the lives of young women and men in 10 African countries

“[Improving youth employment] is a huge, huge challenge for Africa and something we need to tackle on all levels. We spoke about what works but we’ve also been honest and humble about what doesn’t work.”

- Ingrid Woolard, Member of the PEP Board of Directors

The need for funding, coordination, monitoring and evaluation, inclusivity, and training came up throughout the morning’s discussions. In a two-part session consisting of a panel discussion and table discussions, the panel and the audience agreed on the key areas where policy must act to create decent and fulfilling work for young women and men across the African continent.

The session drew and built on PEP research supported under the What Works for Youth Employment in Africa program, and was organised in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation. “PEP is helping to ensure dignified and fulfilling work for youth by contributing policy analysis and action points,” explained Carol Newman in her introductory remarks.

Tade Aina, Chief Impact and Research Officer at the Mastercard Foundation, opened the session by explaining how the Foundation is using its Young Africa Works strategy to facilitate decent and fulfilling work for young women and men throughout the continent by 2030. “[The Foundation] has focused our efforts on Africa, the continent of youth and promise,” he said. He also highlighted the Foundation’s collaboration with local organisations, such as PEP, as a key element for the sustainability of the strategy beyond 2030.

A lively panel discussion followed. Moderated by Gladys Gachanja, the panel bringing together representatives of research, social enterprise, policy, and youth interests from East and West Africa discussed barriers to youth employment and how to overcome them.

All the panellists identified improving training, particularly vocational training for entrepreneurship, as vital for decent job creation.

Reflecting on the current situation, Thiané Tall—a PEP researcher and youth organisation representative from Senegal—and Tsega Gebrekristos Mezgebo—PEP researcher and Assistant Professor at the Ethiopian Civil Service University—both highlighted the mismatch between what is taught in formal education and the needs of the labour market.

Looking at solutions, Francis Adebayo, PEP project team member and Assistant Chief Planning Officer at the Federal Ministry of Finance, Nigeria, said: “Vocational training helps marginalised youth to break the cycle of poverty.” Dibo M. Willis-Ambetsa, Managing Founder and CEO of OnTrak Kenya, concurred, saying: “Without training, I would not be here today. I am a big advocate for training and we cascade this through my organisation.”

Another key and common barrier to the success of youth employment programmes is the lack of coordination between the implementing institutions. Multiple government structures work in the same area but do not work together, leading to overlaps and gaps. Francis also highlighted how the lack of centralised coordination means that it is difficult for the Federal Government to know how to best allocate funds to achieve their youth employment objectives. “The lack of coordination affects the programmes’ reach, effectiveness and sustainability,” said Dibo.

Linked to the lack of coordination is the lack of programme monitoring and evaluation. “We don’t know what happened to the funds allocated, we don’t know if the targets have been met,” explained Thiané. As Tsega said: “Monitoring and evaluation is key to understanding what is preventing success.”

Divided into four groups by geographic area, the audience had their opportunity to reflect on the panellists’ arguments and identify short-term priority policy actions to create decent and fulfilling work for youth. The groups collectively identified nine areas for policy action, ranging from creating dedicated funds and bringing in the private sector, to involving youth in programme design and creating a national platform for information sharing.

However, the three actions that at least three, if not all, groups agreed on were to:

  • Improve or establish centralised (independent) monitoring and evaluation of youth employment programmes;
  • Invest in vocational training and internships/apprenticeships, particularly those focused on entrepreneurship;
  • Improve the coordination of youth employment programmes.
Panel on AI

The AI Revolution and Labour Markets in Developing Countries:

Towards a Southern-Driven Research Agenda

“Data is not the new oil, it’s much more than that. To the extent that data is an economic asset, we have to get much more serious about how we value it. At the very least we should realise that our data is our strength. [The AI revolution] is a topic we’ll be coming back to and back to at PEP, and this is just the start. And what a great start.”

- Rohinton Medhora, Member of the PEP Board of Directors

Predictions regarding the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on labour markets vary wildly but this range of scenarios can be useful for identifying the path we want and need to take. This was the message that came across from the speakers during the second half of the PEP Policy Conference on The Future of Work in the Global South.

Earlier in the day, Carol Newman had previewed the session saying:

“How Artificial Intelligence will impact the labour markets in the Global South is one area that is getting less attention and definitely requires a lot more in terms of research, policy debates and discussions.”

Getting into specifics, our keynote speaker, Ekkehard Ernst, Chief of the Macro-economic Policies and Jobs Unit at the International Labour Organization highlighted the challenges and opportunities that would come up throughout the discussions:

“There is a lot of hype about AI right now. However, what is not talked about much and where we are concerned is how AI will exacerbate inequality.

Strategic development, regulation and governance are necessary for understanding how to use AI in a way that protects workers.

If governments want to use AI, they should use it in such a way that it will deliver on the specific challenges they want to address—such as green energy transitions.”

Complementing Ekkehard’s presentation on “The economics of AI: What can the Global South Expect?”, PEP Research Fellow and mentor, Guillermo Cruces, brought up further points that the second panel of the day would expand upon. He presented findings from a new PEP study he has co-authored on “Generative AI: A Southern-driven review and research agenda”. The study aims to provide something that has largely been missing so far: a perspective from the Global South on how the global majority can benefit from this new AI technology.

He emphasised how uncertain any predictions about the effects of AI must be:

“Depending on the assumptions we use when modelling, we predict either a utopia or a dystopia due to AI.

The confidence intervals for research on AI are very large. We can only think about a range of scenarios. If someone says they know what will happen, they should not be trusted!”

The second panel—again moderated by Gladys—brought together public policy experts with tech industry leaders. One side urged caution, the other identified promising areas for progress.

They dug into ways that having a range of possible scenarios can be useful. Some panellists argued that the uncertainty around the effects of AI is an opportunity rather than a problem.

“Building scenarios is a really helpful tool because it allows us to map out potential outcomes and assess which are the most likely and which are the most preferable, in terms of social outcome. What we are seeing right now is that the optimistic scenario is not yet the most likely one. But that gives us agency to work towards it.”

- Megan Ballesty, Co-lead and Public Policy Specialist at Sur Futuro in Argentina 

Phyllis Migwi speaks
(L-R) Phyllis Migwi, John Matogo, Sarah Cook

Phyllis Migwi, Country General Manager at Microsoft East Africa, went further arguing that when the main challenge is job creation, it is not necessarily a bad thing in the short-term if AI leads to more low-skilled, low-value jobs. “We need to look at AI as an enabler for the goals we already have,” she said, echoing Ekkehard’s conclusion.

However, Sarah Cook, Professor at The University of Nottingham Ningbo in China, urged for more caution. She said that increasing the number of low-quality jobs is likely to increase inequality and contribute to the de-skilling of university graduates as work becomes “taskified” (jobs are broken down into much less meaningful tasks, some of which can be automatised).

Similar to the morning session, the panel found consensus on the topic of training.

“Skills is one area we can invest in to help bridge the [inequality] gap. Reskilling as well as upskilling is important for people who are already in the workforce but where the work is changing. For example, learning how to write prompts for generative AI tools. Two years ago no one was talking about prompt engineering.”

- John Matogo, Corporate Social Responsibility Leader for Middle East & Africa at IBM, Kenya

Megan concurred, saying: “It is really important to provide widespread training so that people and workers in particular who are using these tools can leverage the technology and become more productive thanks to it.” She highlighted how skilling for jobs enhanced by AI is not just at university. “There are a lot of opportunities in technical jobs where vocational training is the right path,” she said.

“Upskilling is important not just because of AI but across the board. Upskilling is driven by where businesses want to go,” said Phyllis. She shared how Microsoft is working with Kenyan universities to revise their curricula to incorporate emerging technologies, and providing opportunities in several Kenyan schools for students to get a handle on the possibilities AI can provide.

Phyllis also spoke on the importance of ensuring girls in the Global South access education. “This is part of how we reduce the gender bias [in the tech sector],” she said. Indeed, gender inequality as well as income inequality may be exacerbated as AI use increases. As Megan stated, the jobs that are enhanced by AI tend to be in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) sector, and these jobs tend to be concentrated among men from higher socio-economic backgrounds.

Due to the uncertainty of designing policy for a future with rapidly changing technologies, experimentation, research and testing are vital for avoiding the pessimistic scenarios of increased inequality and job losses. Phyllis called for governments to invest in this area, saying: “Let’s have government-sponsored sandboxes and let’s have policy labs, so that before anything becomes law we’ve looked into the implications of it.”

As Sarah warned, “The biases of algorithm-based tools will look different depending on the context since they are based on the context where they were developed.” John responded that providing contextualised data is key for training AI models in a way that works for Global South populations. Both he and Phyllis identified countries—including Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia—that are building large language models (LLMs) in their native languages. “Language is one of the barriers and we see this as a way to increase the adoption of AI technology,” he said. “Kenya will be working on the Swahili language model. That brings at least 200 million people into the conversation,” said Phyllis.

“When the underlying economy is changing as fast as this one is, we have to take the results on what’s going to happen to labour markets, or anything else, with a great degree of open-mindedness. The parameters and the way we come about them are also changing, so the calls for wide confidence intervals and scenario building were right on. This is a time for experimentation and sandboxes. No country has the right answer on how we regulate AI.”

- Rohinton Medhora, Member of the PEP Board of Directors, provided the closing remarks.

When the each of the day’s two sessions concluded, members of PEP’s Board of Directors—Ingrid and Rohinton—emphasised that this was not the end of the conversation. They called on those present (in-person and online) to share their takeaways with their colleagues and networks, whether to improve prospects for decent work for youth in Africa, or to promote a Southern-driven agenda on the AI revolution.

This event was organised as part of PEP's 2024 Annual Conference activities. It was possible thanks to the support and partnership of the Mastercard Foundations, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, the Fonds d'Innovation pour le Développement, and the Global Education Analytics Institute.


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