Is demand-led skills training one answer to Sierra Leone’s human capital crisis?

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Yvette Conteh, 19, heard about the Skills Development Fund (SDF), a program funded by the World Bank’s Skills Development Project. The World Bank and Sierra Leone’s Ministry of Technical and Higher Education are working together to revamp Sierra Leone’s skills development sector, using data and rigorous and competitive institution scouting to support demand-led training at Technical and Vocational Educational Training (TVET) centers across the country. These centers give people like Yvette the training and other tools necessary to gain new, relevant, market-driven skills, opening up opportunities for their employment. 

Yvette has a hearing impairment and lives in the urban outskirts of Freetown with her mother and two younger siblings. She lost her father at a young age, and her mother, who did not complete secondary education, works as a petty trader selling seasonal fruits. Yvette and her siblings had to drop out of school in 2018, when their family could no longer afford the tuition.

Yvette’s hearing difficulties made her believe she would not be able to do much, but things were so difficult for her and her family, she felt she had to try. Last year, after graduating from the Daughters Vocational Center, a SDF grantee, she secured a waitressing job through the Center’s “On the Job Training” (OJT) program—a requirement of the curricula, enforced by the SDF. Yvette is now the first in her family to earn a stable salary in the formal economy and describes herself as her family’s “breaker of generational cycles.”   

A short stay in Sierra Leone quickly exposes you to some of the challenges of its labor force. A common observation visitors make is the shortage of skills across almost every sector from hospitality to carpentry, construction, agriculture, transportation, banking, and more. It may be the bank teller who does not know how to operate the portal on their desktop, or the plumber who makes the same repairs to the pipes every other month—both are indications that Sierra Leone’s TVET sector is affecting its development of human capital. On a scale of 0 to 1, Sierra Leone’s Human Capital Index (HCI) is ranked 0.4 and is increasing at an average annual rate of 1.80%.  

This shortage of a skilled labor force affects the country’s most productive economic sectors and economy as a whole. As many as 88% of its workforce is in low-productivity employment or self-employment, of whom 55% are unskilled and unemployed youth. 

There are a number of reasons why the country finds itself in this position. These include low basic cognitive skills obtained at school, lack of funds to complete school, little access to training programs, and the supply-driven approach (with little or no input from employers) that informs the content of training. In the face of these challenges, developing human capital through a market-demand-driven approach is emerging as a method with more impact at getting people who are undereducated, disadvantaged, and overlooked, practical skills, formal jobs, and their own livelihoods. 

In just over a year since the start of SDF, the project has funded 147 institutions and businesses across Sierra Leone’s 16 urban and rural districts and supported them to train and provide 21,362 individuals like Yvette with opportunities to get jobs. Training has been a combination of theory and practice, including site visits to farms, industries, and businesses. Internships and OJT have given participants opportunities to apply their knowledge in real life, and learn more, in terms of gaining competencies, from professionals—a component many beneficiaries feel is their best pathway to employment. 

To strengthen private sector engagement, the SDF, in collaboration with the National Council for Technical Vocational and other Academic Awards, have carried out a series of private sector engagement workshops, leading to the signing of Memoranda of Understanding between industries and grantee training institutions.

This year, the SDF Secretariat launched its second call for grant applicants, focusing this time on businesses, especially micro-enterprises operating in the digital sector. The second call saw a 14% increase in applications, reflecting stakeholder buy-in and support for the project. Training institutes are motivated to partner with the SDF to leverage financing and expertise. Representatives of industry see the value in ensuring such training is market-led, and beneficiaries recognize an opportunity to invest in acquiring skills to improve their prospects of employability. 

For as long as the project is expanding, the SDF is, in effect, supporting sustainability while providing opportunities for growth and development in youth employment across the country. More prospects empower and motivate Sierra Leone’s young people to be the generation that drives the country out of extreme poverty, and back towards economic prosperity, enabling them to protect their communities and provide security for their families.