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‘Centres of excellence’ aim to bridge Africa’s skills gap

Out-Law News | 23 Apr 2014 | 5:09 pm | 2 min. read

The World Bank is to finance 19 university-based ‘centres of excellence’ in seven countries in West and Central Africa, in an effort to tackle a “serious shortage” of skilled workers in major industries that are vital to the continent’s economic growth.

The World Bank’s board of executive directors has approved $150 million to finance “competitively selected” centres offering advanced specialised studies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related disciplines, as well as in agriculture and health.

According to the Bank, the continent “faces a serious shortage of skilled workers in fast-growing sectors such as extractive industries, energy, water, and infrastructure, as well as in the fields of health and telecommunications”.

World Bank vice-president for Africa Makhtar Diop said: “I can think of no better way to grow African economies, create jobs, and support research in Africa, than educating young graduates with expertise in high-demand areas such as chemical engineering, crop science, and the control of infectious diseases.”

The ‘Africa Centers of Excellence’ (ACE) project will receive credits from the Bank’s International Development Association via the governments of Nigeria ($70m), Ghana ($24m), Senegal ($16m), Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, and Togo ($8m each). The Gambia will also receive a $2m credit and a $1m grant to provide higher education, including short-term training, to students, faculty and civil servants through the 19 ACEs.

The Bank said: “The result of having too few skilled workers in Africa’s extractive industries is that oil and minerals are extracted in Africa but processed elsewhere in the world, to the detriment of African industries and jobs. Further, Africa needs its own research and innovative solutions to tackle its development challenges including climate change, which calls for urgent measures to increase yields in agriculture; and infectious diseases, which continue to exact a heavy toll on families and economies.”

World Bank education manager for West and Central Africa Peter Materu said: “Students in West and Central Africa urgently need high-quality science and technology programmes to compete in their own regional job market as well as the global economy, but not a single university from this part of Africa features in rankings of the world’s top 500 universities. The ACE project is a win-win initiative – it will help these young people achieve their aspirations without leaving Africa, and it will help firms to find advanced skills and knowledge domestically and to compete more effectively in international markets.”

The researcher-to-population ratio is very low in African countries, the Bank said. Burkina Faso has 45 research and development (R&D) specialists per million people, and Nigeria has 38 – compared to an average of 481 in Latin America and 1,714 in East Asia.

The Bank said ACEs will “offer a regionally integrated way to increase high-quality R&D services that will help meet these challenges, yet are efficient and economical given limited public budgets”. Coordination and knowledge-sharing among the 19 ACEs will be managed through the Association of African Universities, which the Bank said has received a $5m grant for this purpose “and is an important regional partner”.

Grant Thornton's latest International Business Report (IBR) quarterly tracker survey for the fourth quarter of 2013, published last month, said 36% of business owners in South Africa cited a lack of skills as constraining their expansion plans.

However, chief executive officer of Grant Thornton Johannesburg Andrew Hannington added: “This is not just a local concern. The IBR research reveals that South Africa’s statistics are on a par with the global data (30%) relating to a lack of skills... a global skills shortage highlights that companies, governments and trade associations need to collaborate more to try and mend this issue once and for all.”

According to the 2013 Talent Shortage Survey by the ManpowerGroup, the top five jobs in South Africa that employers have difficulty filling are engineers, management, teachers, legal staff including solicitors, lawyers, legal secretaries and skilled trades.

The survey said employers in the Europe, Middle East & Africa (EMEA) region, when asked to provide further insight as to why talent shortages were preventing them from filling particular positions, cited a shortage of candidates with relevant technical competencies. “This shortcoming was selected by 36% of employers in 2013, up from 34% last year,” the survey said.