Close to 195 million people (half of the global workforce) will lose their jobs globally due to COVID-19, says the International Labour Organisation. The sectors that will be most affected are hospitality, manufacturing, food services, business administrative services and retail. In March alone, 701,000 people lost their jobs in America, the worst since the great recession of 2009.
This situation may portend a gloomier reality for some African countries. The African Development Bank put the unemployment rate in Africa at nearly 60%. Nigeria’s unemployed population stands at over 23 million which is more than the population of Sierra Leone, United Arab Emirates, Equatorial Guinea and Uruguay combined. Now with a global recession looming, these numbers will increase. In the coming months, the UNDP has said nearly half of all jobs in Africa will be lost which will lead to a loss in income expected to exceed $220 billion. In Nigeria for instance, Access bank has said it will cut down over 75% of its workforce, while those remaining will have to bear the brunt of salary reduction. The Standard Bank of South Africa has already laid off 1200 workers and closed 91 branches in the country. In a viral video, the CEO of Access Bank said:
We probably don’t need as many security men as usual, even as we are not going to have all our branches open between now and December. We certainly don’t need all the security men; we don’t need the tea girls; we don’t need all the cleaners; we don’t need all the tellers etc, etc. These numbers represent 75% of our workforce.
Based on this reality, the Central Bank of Nigeria issued a directive stalling all commercial banks from carrying out any retrenchment during this period without the approval of the Bankers Committee. This, the apex bank says is to help minimize and mitigate the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on families and livelihoods. While I think this is a good move, it is equally not sustainable considering the current economic landscape in Nigeria as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be difficult for businesses to sustain business operations when revenue levels are declining and the ways of doing business are changing by the hour.
In the coming months, many employers including the big players may not be able to pay salaries. Nigeria has had to cut down its 2020 budget by nearly 320 billion naira due to the drastic drop in the price of crude oil — from US$60 to below US$20 per barrel. What this means is that there will be less funds for infrastructural development and the government might not be able to pay salaries. Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (SMEs) are even more vulnerable because of their inability to increase income levels due to the lockdown and slow business patronage. The informal services sector will also be hugely impacted. Over 2 billion people are working in the informal sector, especially in developing countries. The mai shayi that sells bread and tea on your street, the woman that sells groceries to you at the market, the taxi driver that drives you to work every day all fall in this category, and they will be badly hit.
I believe the COVID-19 pandemic presents us with an opportunity to think deeply about the skills gap crisis and rising unemployment which has been further exacerbated by the pandemic and begin to proffer the right solutions. Skills gap refers to the difference between the skills required for a job and the skills employees or workforce offers.
The world as we know it is changing and the COVID-19 pandemic has affected every part of our lives. Many companies have been forced to change the way they work. The pandemic is making digital skills a pre-requisite for most employees and has intensified the need to digitize a wide range of services. From remote working to re-inventing supply chain strategies to the rapid adoption of digitalization, the future of work is here. However, I believe the ‘new normal’ arising from COVID-19 will continue to widen the current huge skills gap. As we move towards a post COVID era, the core skills required across occupations will be wholly different. This means to stay relevant during and after the pandemic, many employees will have to adjust to this new normal by constantly re-evaluating their skills to fit into the new world of business operations. By now, any smart employee and employers alike will be thinking of adjusting to the current realities before it is too late to do so.
The World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Index shows that Africa’s working-age population (predominantly between the age 15–64 years) will increase by two-thirds in 2030- from 370 million adults in 2010 to over 600 million in 2030. However, a significant portion of this age group is already unemployed or underemployed mostly due to inadequate education and skills levels. To close this gap, Africa will need to create about 12 million new jobs every year to prevent unemployment from rising.
This is a time for a huge re-awakening for African leaders. A time to think critically on bridging the skills gap and prepare African youths for the jobs of tomorrow. New technologies such as artificial intelligence, big data and internet of things are already disrupting jobs and the relevant skills needed to do them. African leaders should accelerate and deliver on providing educational resources and skills to their citizens.
The World Economic Forum research on Realizing Human Potential in the Fourth Industrial Revolution recommends eight ways for creating stronger education systems, including 1) expanded access to early-childhood education; 2) ensuring the ‘future-readiness’ of curricula; 3) investing in developing and maintaining a professionalized teaching workforce; 4) early exposure to the workplace and career guidance; 5) investing in digital fluency and ICT literacy skills; 6) providing robust and respected technical and vocational education and training (TVET); 7) creating a culture of lifelong learning; and 8) openness to education innovation.
This task should not be only left to the government alone. The private sector employs 90% of the working-age population and therefore play a very critical role. Now more than ever, the private sector should open up economic opportunities for young people by collaborating with government and non-profit agencies to train, skill, and reskill Africa’s young population. There are many case studies around the world that the private sector can model after. Another WEF report on Disrupting Unemployment Business-led Solutions for Actions documents over 80 case studies on opportunities for the Private Sector to close the skills gap. There are many organizations in Africa already working assiduously to build multi sector partnerships in the areas of skills development; this is highly commendable, but a lot still needs to be done to survive the new realities coming after COVID-19.