African youth face pressing challenges in the transition from school to work

More than 72 million youth in Africa are not in education, employment or training – the majority of them young women. Tackling youth inactivity and gender inequalities is essential if countries are to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 8 on decent work for all by 2030.
© Marcel Crozet / ILO
© Marcel Crozet / ILO

More than one in four young people in Africa – around 72 million – are not in employment, education or training (NEET). Two-thirds of them are young women. Africa is in the unique position of being a relatively young continent, with a rapidly growing youth population. This brings with it much potential but also some challenges. In order to further our understanding of the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, the ILO in partnership with the Mastercard Foundation has produced a series of briefs on the youth labour market in seven countries, namely: Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda. This blog summarizes the main findings.

NEET rates were on the rise for African youth even before the pandemic

In 2015, the NEET rate – the share of young people not in employment, education or training – became the key measure of progress in promoting decent work amongst young people under the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda, replacing the youth unemployment rate as the main (unofficial) measure used in the previous development goals to assess the health of youth labour markets. This is good news for our understanding of youth labour markets, and above all, of youth vulnerability during the school-to-work transition. True, nearly 13 million young people in Africa are unemployed. But this excludes nearly 60 million other young people who are neither employed nor in education, the majority of whom would like to work, but who face obstacles to searching for and/or obtaining jobs. The NEET rate provides a better indication of the extent of barriers facing young people in the labour market than the unemployment rate does.

Since 2005, NEET rates have fallen slightly globally.  Not so in sub-Saharan Africa, which experienced an increase of 2.8 percentage points over the same period, with now over a quarter of young people in the region neither employed nor engaged in education or training. Although NEET rates increased globally and across regions in 2020 as a result of the pandemic (and subsequently recovered), they had already been increasing since 2015 in Africa, including in sub-Saharan Africa. The NEET rates among youth (aged 15-29) in the seven countries studied currently range from 14.4 per cent in Uganda to as much as 34.9 per cent in Senegal.  

Gender disparity persists

In line with global trends, young women in sub-Saharan Africa face more obstacles to participation in the labour market and recorded a NEET rate of nearly 33 per cent in 2022. In all seven countries in sub-Saharan Africa covered by the briefs, young women (aged 15-29) had higher NEET rates and lower employment rates than young men. Young women in Ethiopia were nearly three times as likely to be NEET compared to their male counterparts; in Nigeria, Senegal and Uganda, around twice as likely. Unfortunately, this trend is not surprising since young women disproportionately shoulder household tasks like childcare, looking after the ill and elderly, cooking, fetching water and gathering firewood, limiting them from participating in the labour market and/or education.

Youth NEET rates also vary across other characteristics. For example, education is a crucial factor that, across the globe, usually helps in the acquisition of decent work. Typically, NEET rates tend to fall as individual’s educational attainment increases.

However, the difference in the NEET rates of young people with lower and higher levels of educational attainment is relatively modest in sub-Saharan Africa. Moreover, over the last decade or so, the number of tertiary graduates in sub-Saharan Africa has increased at a faster pace than the rate at which jobs have been created to accommodate them. Both phenomena are evidence of a mismatch. That is, increased educational attainment is evidently not in itself a complete remedy for the lack of decent work available to young Africans.

Nevertheless, in all seven countries, the NEET rates of young adults (aged 25-29) with less than basic education were higher than the NEET rates of those with tertiary (advanced) education. Moreover, in all the countries, young adult women had higher NEET rates than young adult men did at every level of education. This is particularly concerning because it suggests that higher educational qualifications did not close the gender gap among 25- to 29-year-olds.

Young women are less likely to have gained stable and satisfactory employment post-graduation

While the NEET rate is a useful measure for youth labour underutilization, the concept refers only to the quantity of employment and does not reflect on the quality of the jobs that are acquired. The ILO’s school-to-work transition indicators allow some consideration also of job quality amongst young people. These indicators have been designed to provide insights on young people’s transition paths into the labour market. According to the ‘stage of transition’ indicator, completion of the transition from school to work is achieved when a young person obtains either a stable job, or satisfactory self- or temporary employment, not just employment of any kind. This is a crucial distinction.

In Kenya, Rwanda, Senegal and Uganda – the four (out of seven) countries for which transition data are available – a comparison with employment rates is instructive. The share of young people who had completed the transition – in other words, who found satisfactory or stable employment – was always significantly smaller than the share of young people in employment as a whole. For example, in Rwanda, only 29.5 per cent and in Kenya 15.5 per cent of young people who were in employment, had actually completed the transition, that is, found a job that is stable or satisfactory. In three countries (the exception being Rwanda), more young men than young women had completed the transition – this is consistent with trends worldwide. In Senegal, for example, young men were more than twice as likely as young women to have done so.

Meanwhile, most young women – 95 per cent in Kenya, 89 per cent in Rwanda, 79 per cent in Senegal and 78 per cent in Uganda – either had not yet started the transition or were “in transition” (see concepts and definitions box). In as much as this implies that many young people in the country were still in education, then this could be a rather positive sign. Yet, among young women who had not started their transition or were still in transition, around 60 per cent were not attending school.


These case studies reflect the need for policy interventions to support young women in finding stable and satisfactory employment. It remains an issue of major concern that even highly educated young women were significantly more likely to be unemployed or outside the labour force than young men. Strategies and interventions to promote youth employment focus primarily on measures to improve education and skills training. Whilst these are essential, such an exclusive supply-side focus will not be sufficient. For serious progress to be achieved, these measures need to be complemented by appropriate demand-side macroeconomic and sectoral policies to ensure adequate job creation for young people.

Concepts and definitions

The definition of youth

For statistical purposes, the United Nations defines youth as persons aged between 15 and 24 years old. This is the definition used for most indicators in ILOSTAT including for ILO modelled estimates which are presented here. For country-level data in this blog and the series of country briefs on which this blog is based, and which includes the school-to-work framework, youth refer to persons aged between 15 and 29 years old. This recognizes the fact that some young people remain in education for longer and captures more information on the post-graduation employment experiences of young people. 

 To compare NEET rates at different levels of educational attainment, the focus is on the slightly older 25- to 29-year-old age group. This avoids the misleading picture that emerges from examining NEET (or unemployment) rates by educational attainment for 15- to 24-year-olds, as these are subject to systematic differences not due to educational attainment per se. For example, 15- to 24-year-olds with tertiary educational attainment will systematically be older, on average, than those with basic or secondary education.

The definition of employment based on the latest statistical standards

According to the latest statistical standards, as described in the Resolution concerning statistics of work, employment and labour underutilization, which was adopted by the 19th International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) in 2013, work comprises any activity performed by persons of any sex and age to produce goods or to provide services for use by others or for own use. The series of ILO country briefs follow these standards where possible to examine trends and issues in youth employment, namely in Rwanda and Uganda. The remaining countries follow the previous standards (adopted by the 13th ICLS in 1982), which use a broader definition of employment. To present internationally comparable figures, this blog uses the 13th ICLS standards for all country-level data and thus presents different figures from the briefs for two countries. ILO modelled estimates are also based on the 13th ICLS definition of employment.

To learn more, refer to the Quick guide to understanding the impact of the new statistical standards on ILOSTAT databases. It explains the differences between the two sets of standards, the impact of the revisions on headline indicators, and how this is handled on ILOSTAT to ensure data users can continue making meaningful time series analyses and international comparisons.

Stages and forms of transition from school to work

The school-to-work transition indicators were designed to give a more detailed classification of young people’s transition path in the labour market. As its name implies, the indicator on stages of transition classifies youth into three groups according to their stage in the school-to-work transition: (I) transited, (II) in transition, and (III) transition not yet started. The indicator on forms of transition (items a-h below) provides further breakdowns to better understand youth transitions. The stages and forms of transition are as follows:

1. Transited – A young person (aged 15 to 29) who is not in school and currently employed in:
(a) A stable job, or
(b) Satisfactory self-employment or a satisfactory temporary job
2. In transition – A young person (aged 15 to 29) who is:
(c) In school and currently employed or unemployed (in the labour force)
(d) Not in school and unemployed
(e) Not in school and currently employed in a temporary and unsatisfactory job (unsatisfactory work)
(f) Not in school and not in employment but aiming to be employed later (potential labour force)
3. Transition not yet started – A young person (aged 15 to 29) who is:
(g) Still in school and outside the labour force
(h) Not in school, outside the labour force and with no intention of looking for a job

For further information, refer to the Youth Labour Market Statistics (YouthSTATS) database description.


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