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‘We want to be heard’: The voices of Uganda’s young people on youth unemployment

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“We looked for jobs until we gave up,” one young woman said during a focus group discussion in Owino Market, one of the largest markets for secondhand clothing in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

More than 75% of Uganda’s population is below the age of 30, with the country having one of the highest youth unemployment rates at 13.3%—the number of youth actively looking for a job as a percentage of the labor force—in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The youth bulge and high levels of unemployment call for urgent action and innovative solutions. The Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Development, with the World Bank, commissioned consultations with youth in local communities. The purpose was to collect the views of young people, through focus group discussions on youth unemployment, with a view to inform job and employment policies and programs.

During the focus group discussions in Owino Market, young people spoke about lack of access to formal jobs, the uselessness of having a graduated from university, and another spoke of the prohibitive costs of finding employment.

Youth have varying aspirations - shaped by their education, skills, life experiences, and networks. Some students hope that good academic grades will get them jobs on merit. Most of them lack well-placed networks to connect them to jobs and argue that their only recourse is good academic grades to unlock future opportunities.

Some youth have started small enterprises, to build up capital while still in school. They are confident that this will prepare them for the eventuality of not having jobs after school. Most consider personal savings as the most certain source of capital, because they lack collateral to access loans; and networks to connect them to government programs.

For thosewho have completed school and joined the labor market, the aspiration of getting formal jobs has since been replaced by disillusionment. Some have resorted to vending in markets and dream of becoming importers of merchandise from Asia.

One of the youth in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement highlighted the prohibitive costs of finding employment, “Sometimes, all you have in the refugee settlement is food – you do not have any money for anything else, let alone applying for a job.”Uganda hosts the most refugees in Africa, and has one of the most progressive refugee policies in the world. However, the voices of youth show that policy and practice often vary.

Youth still in school, and those looking for jobs contend that the demand of good jobs exceeds supply. There is a perception that the education acquired does not match the needs of the job market. Lack of soft skills and networking opportunities is also a key constraint. There is limited access to internship opportunities, which makes it harder for youth in the job market to acquire the relevant experience required by employers. Those who are already in salaried employment also decried the lack of mentorship. Youth who are about to join the job market are concerned about lack of networks, information, and money required to enable them to acquire their first job. Apprenticeships are of low quality, costly, unregulated, and utilizing outdated technology. Refugees highlighted the lack of qualifications as a major constraint. They noted that the academic qualifications they obtain from South Sudan are considered inferior to the Ugandan system. 

Despite these challenges and constraints, young people remain confident that there are solutions to creating good jobs.

“Some solutions are within our reach if we change our attitudes towards work. Most solutions however depend on the government working with us to create more jobs.”

By providing capital and hands-on skills, the government and private sector could promote business start-ups. It is also important to for government and private firms to give recent graduates the opportunity to build up the skills and experience required by the job market.

The young people appreciated the opportunity to be heard by policy-makers and program designers. The views of young people will be incorporated into ongoing government and World Bank analytic work on job creation and youth employment.


Irene Among

Senior Social Development specialist

Michael Mutemi Munavu

Sr. Social Protection Specialist

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