Fletcher's Nani Detti (MALD23) interviews Youth and Education Support Service (YESS) Ethiopia Founder, Fikadu Reta Alemayehu

by VManve
Aug 02
In 2019, I launched Misale Initiative, a project aimed at matching university students and fresh graduates in Ethiopia with mentors. At the time, I wanted to work on the issue of youth unemployment in my country, and I thought that mentorship was what could be the missing link between students and employers. As the project progressed, and I started working with the students accepted into the program, it became clear that what they were missing was well-organized career development services.
From Ethiopia's 59 universities, over 100,000 students graduate each year. Despite the high graduation rate, the majority of students struggle to land jobs: the supply of jobs is quite low, and universities lack strong professional networks. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s universities fail to prepare their students with professional development skills (i.e., resume preparation; networking; and communication skills).
Due to the absence of career centers and career counselors on university campuses, many students go through their time at university with little to no idea about what to expect in the job market upon their graduation. Students face difficulty connecting their fields of study to the job they want to land, and often lack knowledge about what skills are needed in the job market. There are many groups and organizations in Ethiopia that are working to support university students and fresh graduates. Perhaps one of the most active ones is Youth and Education Support Service (YESS) Ethiopia, an initiative started by Fikadu Reta Alemayehu, a teacher by profession, and a man passionate about young people. Through YESS, Fikadu provides students across Ethiopia mentorship services, and workshops on life and professional development skills.
Primarily, I connected with Fikadu a couple of years ago when I launched Misale, and I was able to catch up with him in Addis to learn more about his work with YESS Ethiopia, and his views on the growing problem of youth unemployment in Ethiopia. Below is a transcript of Detti's conversation with Alemayehu. 
Detti: Fikadu, thank you for taking the time to meet with me. It’s great to finally meet you in person to learn more about your work with young people in Ethiopia. Let me begin by asking about the programs that YESS Ethiopia offers, and the challenges you have faced as you roll out your programs.
Alemayehu: Thank you, Nani. I started YESS Ethiopia because I was motivated to do something to help unemployed graduates. As a teacher, I frequently saw students who had graduated top of their class with distinction struggling to find a job. Everyone assumes that just because students are excelling academically, they won’t have problems landing a job upon graduation. But that is not the case. Students often lack basic knowledge and skills needed for jobs, such as how to write a CV and cover letter. This shows that there is a gap in our education system. For instance, I recently organized a four-day training around career development, where I gave workshops on CV writing, job interviews, and other aspects of job search. It was shocking to see how many students were hearing about these things for the first time. This shows just how desperately students need support when it comes to figuring out their career path and understanding how to market themselves in the job market.
There are a few challenges we have faced in our work so far. The main one has to do with our lack of capacity to support the number of students who seek our services. Some too many young people need help, and unfortunately, we do not have the resources to support them all. Another challenge is the fact that in Ethiopia, there is a culture of paying students to attend training, which means that if you do not have the financial ability to issue a stipend, the likelihood of young people attending your training is very slim. While in other parts of the world, students voluntarily attend training with no expectation of getting paid, in Ethiopia, it is the opposite. This completely discredits the value of training. At YESS Ethiopia, we make it clear that we do not pay the attendees of our training. They are there because they believe in the value of the workshops we give them and want to gain the skills needed to grow personally and professionally. Other problems have interrupted our training such as the conflict in certain parts of the country, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic. While we moved our training online due to the pandemic, lack of internet access has made it difficult for many students to partake in our workshops.
Detti: Does YESS Ethiopia receive support from government institutions? How does your work connect with the initiatives that the government is undertaking to address youth unemployment?
Alemayehu: To be frank with you, the government is not as active when it comes to finding partners that are working on addressing youth unemployment. There is not much support for programs like YESS. Part of the problem is the absence of exhaustive stakeholder mapping by the government. While many conferences and meetings are taking place to discuss youth unemployment and the challenges that young people are facing, enough action is not being taken to address the issue. I also want to note that most of the initiatives/projects that are launched are concentrated in Addis. Students who attend schools in remote areas do not have the same access to resources and support as those attending schools in the capital. The government needs to do more to expand its projects beyond Addis, and it needs to encourage businesses to hire students.
Detti: One trend I have noticed in the past couple of years is the rise of certificate and training programs that claim to give students life and professional skills. Most of these programs say that they can get students and fresh graduates to get employment, and some even require a fee. Are these programs help students, or are they just another money-making scheme for some people?
Alemayehu: I think we should make a distinction between for-profit training, and those like ours that seek to make no revenue. There has certainly been a rise in for-profit training which claims to equip students and fresh graduates with skills that can get them jobs. Often, such programs lack a way of measuring their impact and have no system in place for accountability. I think it is unethical because young people deserve services that can meaningfully change their lives, and not just something that sounds good in theory. On the other hand, programs like YESS, which place the needs of young people at the center, and provide practical training aimed at employability, are very valuable. Most students who attend our training come to us with no basic knowledge of the need for a professional email address, how to draft emails, or how to write a proper CV and cover letter among other things. With the limited amount of time and resources available, training programs often have an impact on the quality of training that some students are receiving.
The skills that students and fresh graduates have don’t match what the job market needs. Additionally, the country’s economic environment does not nurture an entrepreneurial mindset. Even someone who wants to start a business and lift himself/herself out of poverty will find it difficult to get loans to start something. Banks request that you show assets such as a car and a house before giving you loans. But many young people don’t have jobs, let alone a house and a car. The environment in the country, therefore, doesn’t encourage job creation. It is common to see young people getting into addiction because they can’t handle the pressure that comes with being unemployed.
Many youth programs are funded by various donors. The problem with these is that they are often short-term, and donors seek specific outcomes. There is usually no audit that takes place of these programs, which means that it is difficult to measure their impact. I believe that one of the most important priorities of the government needs to be curriculum review. There has been no review of existing university curricula, and this is impacting the quality of education, which in turn is creating graduates who do not have the necessary skills to land a job and thrive in the job market.
Universities and colleges in the country lack basic infrastructure, have governance issues, and have no accountability. This is harming young people and the future of the country.
Detti: One thing that I am curious about is the presence or lack thereof of career centers. Career centers are an integral part of academic institutions abroad. Is that the case here?
Alemayehu: While career centers exist on paper, unfortunately, none of them do anything to support their students. They have no strategic plan in place to prepare their students for the job market. This reflects the lack of well-designed education policies and the lack of quality in the education system. We spend our resources on hosting conferences and meetings in lavish hotels rather than using them to strengthen our education system and provide students with the support they need. My inbox is filled with messages from students desperately looking for jobs. The only way to address this huge problem is to improve the quality of our education system, hire well-trained teachers, and provide enough funding and support for career centers.
Detti: My final question has to do with the recent trend of business idea competitions that the Ministry of Labor and Skills has launched. These competitions are aimed at fostering innovation and encouraging young people to solve society’s most pressing problems. What are your views on these competitions?
Alemayehu: It is encouraging to see that the government is showing more interest in entrepreneurship and supporting young people in launching their startups. But I am concerned about the fact that there is a push from the government for young people to come up with “innovations.” This means that often, the business ideas that are presented in these competitions do not match the need that exists within the Ethiopian context. For instance, let’s say that a young person comes up with the idea of designing a drone that takes photos of farms to analyze any problems with the crop that they are growing, and his revenue comes from charging farmers a fee for the images. While this idea is innovative and might be solving an important problem, it’s impossible to make it happen within the Ethiopian context, given that most farmers in our country live in poverty, and are unable to pay such a fee. So, while I admire the activities being undertaken by the government to encourage young people to be problem solvers, I worry that the emphasis being placed on finding “innovations” instead of making things we already have better, might be standing in the way of seeing the true potential that young people have.
Detti: Thank you so much for this insightful conversation, Fikadu!