Transitioning from school to work remains a challenge for most young people in Uganda. The International Labor Organization defines school-to-work transition as “the passage of a young person from the end of schooling to the first stable or satisfactory employment.”
Stability in the sense that the job comes with either a written or verbal contract lasting 12 months or more, while satisfactory employment mainly relates to the fact that one does not want to change jobs.
According to the 2021 Uganda National Labor Force Survey (NLFS), 41 percent of the youth aged between 18 and 30 years are Not in Employment, Education, or Training (NEET). The survey further notes that 24% of the youth had transited into employment, 48% were in transition, and 22% had not yet started transition (Figure 1).
Given that the largest share of the youth is either in transition or has not yet started transition (70%), it is critical to ensure relevant conditions for a successful transition for different reasons: First, usually, how one starts in the work environment has a direct bearing on future earnings and the nature of employment. For example, if someone starts in low-paid employment, they are more likely to spend much time in such employment and even remain trapped there. Second, the experience of transitioning from school to work influences one’s well-being and mental health. Suppose one experiences a negative transition marred with challenges early on in one’s work life. In that case, they may suffer from mental health challenges such as depression and end up in substance abuse and, in some cases, die by suicide as they feel their aspirations are not being met. Finally, if a successful transition is not ensured i.e., if the youths are not well equipped to move from school to work successfully, it could become a curse with negative consequences for the country, for example, through increased crime rate, and potential political instability, among others.
Youths’ school-to-work transition challenges persist.
Skills gaps and mismatches often arise from the significant deficiencies in the education system that might limit one’s outcomes in the labour market. An education system significantly impacts one’s ability to transfer skills attained to the workplace. In the case of Uganda, there is an extensive focus on foundational skills, yet many children complete certain school levels without level-specific basic competencies. For example, at least 11.6% of primary three to seven pupils cannot read a primary two literacy text, and 4.7% of primary three to seven pupils are non-numerate. Further still, the general education system is mainly theoretical, with the most considerable focus on the marks attained by an individual, which is not a relevant and reliable measure of learning. All this contributes to a skills gap and mismatches between what employers want and what schools offer students, making the transition challenging.
The question of job availability for meaningful employment also poses a critical challenge in the youth school-to-work transition. The rate at which jobs are being created is low to match the new labour market entrants. In an economy where 400,000 and 800,000 young people are churned annually to compete for 80,000 jobs, even with acquired skills from school, one may be unable to meaningfully engage with the economy. This is portrayed in the high levels of youth unemployment or under-employment, which affect employment gains. Moreover, available jobs are often in the informal sector and of low quality, characterised by low earnings and poor conditions with no formal contracts and minimal benefits.
Related to the above, the high job cost exacerbates the challenges. In addition to the financial costs involving information/job search, preparing application documents, and eventually applying, there is often inadequate career guidance, and many youths are not well equipped with the skills required during the job search process. These skills include networking, information-seeking, and digital literacy skills, among others.
What needs to be done?
Institute curriculum reforms to focus more on practicality as opposed to theory. This is slowly taking shape, for example, with the shift of the lower secondary school curriculum to a competence-based one. However, care must be taken in implementing instituted curriculum reforms by training teachers with the required skills to deliver the curricula, providing instructional and learning materials, and ensuring adequate financing for the education sector.
Enhance the capacity of education institutions to respond to labour market demands to improve effectiveness in youth school-to-work transitions. This can be achieved by balancing the focus on content with that of skills in curriculum design and delivery. In addition to the foundational skills deemed necessary in the job, skills required for one during the transition from school to work should be integrated into the different curricula, especially at the secondary school level. These skills, like networking, information-seeking, and digital literacy skills, are crucial in reducing the costs associated with job search. For example, through networking, one can be able to informally find out about open jobs in certain enterprises and leverage the skills in one network to submit a quality application.
Additionally, public-private partnerships should be harnessed to counter the skills mismatch and deliver market-relevant skills to students. The government can create relationships with both Small and Medium Enterprises and large enterprises to have them participate in curriculum design and delivery so that they get an opportunity to directly equip students with the skills that they find relevant for the job market.
It is also important for policy to shift from overly focusing on the transition into the formal sector to include the transition into the informal sector. Efforts should be devoted to raising productivity in the informal sector to be able to gainfully absorb the high number of youths that transition straight from secondary school into the informal sector. This can be done by, for example, easing access to finance for young entrepreneurs.
Food for thought
In conclusion, the youth school-to-work transition in Uganda is still marred with different challenges. Yet, the ease with which one transitions from school to work directly affects their prospects in terms of earning and employment opportunities, and ultimately on their ability to successfully engage with the economy. Therefore, cognizant of the macro-economic and labour market conditions, different interventions should be undertaken to ensure a positive transition of youths from school to work.
Featured photo credit: Eismat