The greatest challenge we face as a nation is not the irregular power supply or the systemic corruption in the civil service but the high youth unemployment. With 80 per cent of young people unemployed, on the backdrop of the highest population growth rate in Africa, government must tackle the problem urgently and in a comprehensive manner.
As western economies face reducing tax revenues and high health costs due to an aging population, 78 per cent of Uganda’s population is below 35 years old. Although this is a great position to be in, it only translates into an advantage when this young population is receiving a good education and able to acquire employment. With more citizens able to earn a wage, they are in a position to better their lives as well as pay taxes to the state.
It is true that youth unemployment is a conundrum both in the developed and developing countries for example, it stands at 22 per cent in the UK, 50 per cent in Spain and 70 per cent in South Africa. Nonetheless, the key task for our government is to invest strategically in this young human resource so that it is a catalyst for future growth. Despite the provision of universal primary and secondary education and a youth venture capital fund, more has still got to be done. This is because with an increasing population, we have to increase capacity to eliminate supply shocks and abject poverty. It is also important to note that the gap between the rich and poor is widening. It is therefore in our economic interest to prioritise youth unemployment and use this opportunity to realign our economy.
To do this, government should target sectors that have the potential to create thousands of jobs as well as addressing our trade deficit. Examples of such sectors include tourism and agriculture (value addition). We live in a global village which necessitates an economy that is competitive and export oriented. As the food basket of the region with unrivalled attractions, we are best placed to maximise our human resource in order to realise above average economic growth.
On the education front, the curriculum must equip students with the critical skills for employment. The state should also encourage and sponsor more professional courses like engineering that are sought after in the west. As a proportion of all degrees, engineering accounts for 20 per cent of degrees in Japan and 16 per cent in Germany but only 6 per cent in the United States. We have to implement a strategy that takes advantage of the global job market as this will enable our graduates to earn good salaries and straightaway contribute to our economy through remittances which in 2011 contributed more to the economy than the tourism sector.
The youth entrepreneurship fund introduced in the last budget is a step in the right direction but there is no doubt that more initiatives are needed to address the situation. For example, we should encourage businesses to offer apprenticeships and industrial training to young people. The advantage to companies is the fact that the program would provide a skilled workforce they themselves have trained and this option is more cost effective than recruiting skilled workers. I also believe that government should provide community grants at district level to encourage the youth to set up projects that benefit their respective communities.
Our nation is blessed with a beautiful climate, rich soils and minerals but our greatest natural resource is our children. However, with income inequality and high unemployment, there is less consumption which inevitably affects the standard of living and economic growth. With the right strategy and investment, we can take advantage of this young population and produce more as a nation thus realising our economic potential. Without this approach, we shall have a lost generation and the cost to the nation will be much bigger than any of us could imagine.
Kenneth Atugonza MBA, MSc Finance
Email: [email protected]