"Our youth population may be a social time bomb but they're also a force of innovation."

Article, 26.06.2017

Switzerland's commitment to involving private companies in the creation of high-quality apprenticeships is welcomed in Burkina Faso. Private sector involvement may be taken for granted in Switzerland but not everywhere. The exponential rise in Burkina Faso's youth population makes the issue all the more pressing.

Ambroise Tapsoba and Issa Compaoré talking at a table in the restaurant car of a Swiss train.
Ambroise Tapsoba and Issa Compaoré are the two key players in the SDC's programme to support vocational skills development in Burkina Faso. © SDC

In Burkina Faso, 70% of its 19 million inhabitants are under 35 years of age. Of these, some 400,000 young people enter the job market each year with no qualifications. This gives an indication of the challenges facing Burkina Faso – and indeed many other countries – in regard to youth training and employability. 

The SDC has been working for several decades in improving the quality of basic education and vocational skills development in Burkina Faso. Since 2016, the country's leading umbrella organisation of private employers (Conseil national du patronat burkinabè – CNPB) has been a strategic partner of the SDC in its own right. The CNPB is trying to convince as many private companies and tradespeople as possible to create apprenticeships within their businesses. 

We spoke with Issa Compaoré, CNPB secretary for employment and vocational skills development, and Ambroise Tapsoba, specialised associate from the Swiss cooperation office in Burkina Faso, in the restaurant car of the train from Bern to Lausanne, on their way to the SDC's Annual Conference. 

What is the message you want to send in Switzerland?

Issa Compaoré (IC): I'm here to say that the CNPB is honoured to have been entrusted by the SDC to help improve young peoples' training prospects in Burkina Faso, and we are determined to keep working towards this goal. The private sector has a fundamental role to play in helping young people find their career path.

Ambroise Tapsoba (AT): Meanwhile, the SDC can show that its many years of engagement in Burkina Faso have had a real and tangible impact on people's lives. Several projects have helped young people enter the job market, enabling them to make a living and exercise their citizenship rights and responsibilities. And now that we have the private sector on board, our work should have an even greater impact. To get to this stage we had to convince the government to involve private companies in the process of reforming vocational skills development. This has now been done. 

It's hard to imagine that the private sector was never before included as a partner in vocational skills development...

AT: The private sector's lack of involvement in the past was a result of our school system, which was always geared to producing a pool of managers for public administration rather than boosting the economy. The objectives of general education and vocational skills development do not follow the same logic. Our country has always struggled to integrate a practical career-oriented dimension as part of its education programmes.

IC: It's true that many teachers still show some resistance to anyone other than them playing a role in knowledge transfer. And then there's the highly political question of the distribution of power. The state in Burkina Faso has always had complete control over everything. You could say there's still something of a learning curve when it comes to 'shared governance'. And it's not only the private sector that was sidelined: local authorities and civil society were also left out.

More specifically, as the umbrella organisation for a large number of professional associations, what will you do to get private businesses involved in vocational skills development?

IC: We plan on visiting companies door-to-door, explaining how the system works, showing the benefits of taking this new direction. Our goal is to identify 400 businesses willing to take on apprentices. These will receive a label that can then serve as an example to others. 

Have you come across resistance in any companies?

IC: Obviously there are additional costs involved in training apprentices. But as you know here in Switzerland, the return on investment can be huge when companies end up with highly skilled employees with profiles that match their needs. One of the challenges is making companies understand the difference between apprentices and unskilled trainees, who work for nothing or very little. The law needs to be changed to better protect the status of apprentices.

AT: The quality of the training on offer, the relevance of the curricula and the skills of the instructors themselves will also have to be improved before extending vocational skills development to a wider population. We are working with the government ministries concerned on an entire series of new standards.

IC: I totally agree with the need to first lay the groundwork. Unlike the other donors, Switzerland tends to introduce reforms slowly but surely. Obviously there is no need at present to increase the number of training centres: what we need is to find enough companies that are willing to train apprentices. 

Assuming that each of the 400 businesses you hope to identify takes on one or two apprentices, how could you ever hope to meet the demands of 400,000 young people entering the labour market every year?

IC: First of all, obviously, the rate of population growth needs to slow down. Basic education, which is now available to 85% of children in Burkina Faso, will certainly make a difference here. Then we have to focus on transforming our economy. We have more to offer than gold and cotton exports. For example, the transformation of agricultural products has great potential, as does the services sector. And all these young people we're talking about are not doing nothing. The problem is that they have a very low productivity rate. If we can train them properly, they will no longer be considered a social time bomb but a genuine force of innovation.

Promising developments

The SDC's programme to support vocational skills development, launched in 2005, has made the dual apprenticeship model (theory and on-the-job training) a reference in Burkina Faso, based on a large number of successful pilot schemes. Over the years, more than 6,000 young people and 40,000 adults have been able to develop new skills. The SDC also contributed to a new national policy on vocational skills development, where private business takes a central role. By 2020 the SDC plans to enable 12,000 young people (half of them women) to train in various sectors (some traditional, some less so, in crafts and trades, farming, construction and public works, solar energy, etc.) and to find work and thereby make a living. The emergence of skilled workers in Burkina Faso, e.g. in construction, is all the more important in light of the current influx of qualified workers from other countries in the subregion.