In a recent YouthPower Action study, FHI 360 found evidence of promising employment opportunities for youth in sub-Saharan Africa in the health and social services sectors. Funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by FHI 360, the YouthPower Action project is expanding the evidence base for what works in positive youth development and applying improved approaches across programs to empower youth to realize their full potential. Obed Diener, the lead author, discusses the research and its implications.
Why did you do this research?
In much of sub-Saharan Africa, two interrelated development challenges are becoming increasingly urgent. The first is the growing youth unemployment crisis, which is driven by the youth bulge as demand for jobs far exceeds their availability. The second is the HIV epidemic. Compared to other age groups, youth have a high risk of acquisition, low levels of testing and retention in HIV care, and high rates of mortality. In addition, many countries lack the health and social services workforce to preserve gains and cope with the demand for care and treatment.
We conducted the South Africa Health Workforce Assessment to identify strategies for strengthening youth employment and career advancement in the health and social services sectors. In particular, we wanted to identify economic opportunities for adolescent girls and young women, bearing in mind that economic empowerment is an important factor in HIV prevention.
What are some of the important findings?
Our research found tangible ways in which youth could help to alleviate key workforce shortages. The health and social services sectors are growing and creating jobs, such as pharmacist assistants, nursing assistants and phlebotomists. We wanted to highlight these low- and middle-skill jobs because they do not require a four-year university education, making them potentially more accessible for marginalized youth and young women.
But through our research, we learned there are many barriers to accessing to these jobs. Often, youth do not know they even exist. They typically only think of doctors or nurses — jobs that require advanced degrees. Many youth lack the basic math and science skills needed to obtain these jobs. There are also few effective education and training programs and limited career guidance, even for youth who may be aware of these types of jobs.
We were surprised to learn how difficult it can be for youth to enter careers in fields where there are both critical public health shortages and abundant job opportunities. Nursing, for example, is one of the careers in greatest demand in South Africa, yet many education and training pathways to enter or advance in the nursing field have been restricted due to delays in implementing a new accreditation system.
The good news is that we found evidence of some programs effectively preparing disadvantaged youth for the labor market. These programs could be adapted to include stronger links to the health sector. For example, programs that already specialize in training and placing youth in retail jobs could develop a new pharmacy track and place youth in entry-level positions at pharmacies. This would provide a pathway to advance into higher paying jobs, such as a pharmacist assistant.
What strategies could help to increase youth employment?
Our research identified a number of strategies for governments and donors to consider when addressing sub-Saharan Africa’s youth bulge. If harnessed effectively, the bulge presents a compelling opportunity for mitigating both health and social challenges. Our recommendations include:
- Increasing career guidance and education for health and social services by scaling up effective models, such as Johnson & Johnson’s global Bridge to Employment Program, which is implemented by FHI 360.
- Enhancing science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills development for adolescents and youth who may be interested in health careers.
- Expanding access to quality health training programs by increasing accreditation and financial aid.
- Developing job creation and entrepreneurship initiatives in health value chains, such as pharmaceuticals and medical tourism.
- Improving public-sector management practices to include skills and incentives that promote youth employment.
By informing and training youth in the right skills, while working with governments and employers to create more job opportunities, we can develop win-win solutions for youth employment as well as health in sub-Saharan Africa.