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Africa’s youth population is growing rapidly and is expected to double to over 830 million by 2050. This increase in working age population presents an opportunity to boost productivity and facilitate inclusive growth across the continent. However, much of this demographic dividend remains largely untapped. Despite having 10-12 million youth who enter the workforce every year, only around 3 million formal jobs are created annually in Africa. In addition, the potential benefits of African youth population remain unrealized as around one-third of African youth aged 15-35 are unemployed and another one-third are vulnerably employed, mostly in the informal sector. Despite recent commitments for women empowerment, women are the most impacted with both higher unemployment and underemployment, facing greater obstacles and barriers to access job opportunities and earn equal pay.

One of the factors explaining high youth unemployment rates in Africa is related to the problem of skills and capacity development of the youth, leading to a structural mismatch between employers’ needs and youth skills and impeding youth’s entrepreneurial capabilities. Furthermore, where jobs exist, resources for investment in upskilling and re-skilling are often limited. For Africa to harness its demographic dividend for a sustained and inclusive growth driven by youths equipped with decent and green jobs, relevant skills and sufficient capacity, adequate investments are needed. These investments will also ensure that African youths acquire skills valuable to current and future labor market demands. Urgent reforms are therefore required to create opportunities and build capacities of African youths, increase their productivity, and promote innovation and entrepreneurship. These reforms should also promote youth empowerment for increased political and economic participation. As key agents of change, youths must be empowered to take a central role in the design and implementation of youth development policies as well as in institutions tasked to promote and support youth innovation, entrepreneurship and capacity development. Therefore, a skilled and empowered youth workforce represents a precious asset which can help African economies accelerate the momentum of their structural transformation and economic development and leverage the benefits of the fourth industrial revolution.

Although progress towards addressing the challenge of youth unemployment and underemployment has been slow and uneven across the continent, several multilateral institutions, governments and other stakeholders continue to advocate for the urgency of reforms through various policies including, among others, the Africa Development Bank’s Jobs for Youths in Africa (JfYA) (2016-2025) strategy and the UN’s Youth policies in Africa. These strategies aimed at creating decent and green jobs, improving skills and building entrepreneurial capacities of African youths in key economic sectors such as agriculture (on-farm production and off-farm processing); industry (construction, manufacturing, mining and utilities); and ICTs (telecommunication, digital products and services). A major constraint to the effective implementation of these current reforms is the limited empirical evidence on the nature and extent of youth skills deficit in Africa. Furthermore, limited evidence on the continent’s informal sector, current skill base and emerging labor market demands (such as the digital economy and increased automation), and gender differences in labor market participation (particularly in high skill and senior positions) have largely hindered our understanding of the continent’s youth skill gap. A central question facing Africa today is therefore how to bridge Africa’s youth skills deficit and develop their entrepreneurship capacities amid the structural changes underway in most countries and the dynamics of the labor markets? This complex question forms the overarching theme for the 2019 African Economic Conference, which will take place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt from 2 to 4 December 2019.

The AEC 2019 responds to a growing call for action to improve skills, increase jobs and build entrepreneurial capacities of African youths. On the one hand, the Conference will serve as a platform for researchers to present their recent work on jobs for youth, skills acquisition and entrepreneurship in Africa and propose pragmatic and evidence-based policy recommendations to address the challenges they have identified. On the other hand, it will also serve as a platform to engage youths in discussions on their perspectives on current and emerging challenges in the labor markets. Specifically, the conference will give African stakeholders, youth representatives and political leaders the opportunity to: i) provide their insights and thoughts on the debate on youth jobs, skills and entrepreneurship capacities; ii) assess the impact of past and current reforms and initiatives to address youth jobs challenges in Africa; and iii) discuss the feasibility of proposed innovative policy options to reap the benefits of Africa’s youth bulge and address the challenge of youth skills mismatch in the labor market.

The impending disruptions in skills and jobs unleashed by the Fourth Industrial Revolution require profound mutations of the existing educational curriculum in most, if not all, African countries. With the increased use of digital technologies in modern jobs, investments and changes in policies will be needed to ensure that African youth acquire the knowledge, skills and capacity that adequately prepare them for an increasingly competitive and globalized labor market. The Conference will discuss the future of work in the continent and needed reforms to promote future-oriented skills. As a platform for educators, governments, private sector and other stakeholders, the Conference can effectively promote discussions on future labor market demands and changes in policies (including education curricular) and investments in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM); and Information and Communications Technology (ICT) etc to adequately prepare youth for these changes.