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AI can give Africa’s youth a fair shot at jobs

Africa’s youth are anxious. As African countries struggle to create jobs, African youth face the real risk of unending joblessness.

Scarce job opportunities are met with overwhelming demand. For example, in Nigeria, when the tax authorities advertised 500 vacancies, more than 700 000 people applied, an applicant to job ratio of 1400/1. A stubbornly high unemployment rate has created a similar situation in Kenya. In Kakamega, in the west, hundreds of young people crowded outside a supermarket which had advertised for only 15 jobs, nearly causing a stampede.

Lopsided labour markets across the continent can make job hunting seem hopelessly unfair. For it isn’t the strongest or the most talented who win, but those with resources and social networks. Hiring managers face an impossible challenge to vet high volumes of potential candidates. To cope with the high volumes of applications, recruiters’ resort to hiring through their personal networks. Hiring by proximity, along with human bias, undermines a fair recruitment process and further shuts out young people from equal opportunity

But, artificial intelligence (AI) can help even the playing field. Managers should use AI tools in the hiring process to ensure a fairer selection process that is based on merit, not proximity. By better matching job seekers to jobs, hiring managers can contribute to building a job market that is fair and inclusive to young people.

In African countries, young people’s fears of unemployment – or underemployment – are well founded. Every year, roughly 11 million young people enter Africa’s job market, but they find few jobs. To keep pace with a ballooning labour market, the continent needs to create 18 million jobs annually. Yet, it isn’t reaching those targets: only 3 million jobs are currently being created each year. Barring a dramatic increase in jobs, the gap will only widen. By 2030, 30 million youth are expected to enter the job market annually, with no certainty of available jobs. In Nigeria, more than half of those under the age of 35 are unemployed. Include the underemployed, and the number rises. No wonder that somewhere between 200 and 1000 people apply for every job advertised by the Nigerian government.

This lopsided supply-and-demand situation makes hiring a nearly impossible task. Simply sorting through – let alone reviewing – high volumes of applications is beyond any human ability. Hiring managers thus resort to their personal connections, or proximity. For example, in Nigeria, one survey found that 62 percent of its respondents said they relied on referrals, in-house CVs and social media channels, suggesting a need for convenience in hiring. While the dependence on referrals is a global trend – referrals represent 30-50 percent of hires in the US – its high number in Africa’s largest market points to a desperate need for shortcuts in hiring.

A reliance on proximity in recruitment results in three negative outcomes. First, the probability of mismatches between an applicant’s abilities and the job requirements greatly increases. An employee who is a poor fit for the job has negative knock-on effects: higher employee turnover, lower output, and weakened productivity. One study shows that, on global averages, employees poorly suited to their roles can reduce employer’s profitably by a quarter, and increase staff turnover by 60 percent. Employers – and the economy at large – suffer.

Second, the bias toward hiring based on proximity entrenches existing bias and promotes nepotism. If young Africans find no stake in a system that they perceive to be stacked against them, they have little reason to respect and uphold that system. Globally, it is less unemployment and more a perception of grave injustice that drives young people into the arms of extremists. The violent extremist group in northern Nigeria, Boko Haram, which has killed tens of thousands and displaced millions, has recruited most successfully in northern Nigeria, where 25 percent more people live in absolute poverty.

Third, and more subtly, in many African countries social networks are often closely equivalent to ethnic group identities. Networks, then, simply become a proxy for hiring in one’s own ethnic group and can undermine social cohesion. It also erodes meritocracy in hiring. According to BrighterMonday, a job portal in Kenya, young Kenyans don’t bother to apply to jobs for which they qualify if the hiring manager is of another ethnic group, assuming bias.

For African youth and managers alike, hiring by proximity is a lose-lose proposition. That’s a problem in demand of a solution. One may be at hand.

Recruiters should use AI tools to eliminate nepotism and human bias in the hiring process. AI helps solve the headache of application quantity and quality. AI can handle the flood of tens of thousands of applications as it reads and sifts through applications faster than hiring managers. By matching keywords in job advertisements to those in applications, drastically reducing the pile of applications.

Most importantly, AI reviews and assesses everyone equally. In African countries, where trust is in low supply, a machine well may foster greater trust than a person. AI hiring tools take human bias and an inclination to hire on proximity out of the equation. It gives young job seekers a fairer shot at a job.

Although AI has been shown to be susceptible to bias itself due to poor programming, that is more a human, rather than machine, error. But, because of the near equality between job supply and job demand in advanced economies, a debate about bias susceptibility in AI is a luxury that can be afforded there. By contrast, African labour markets are – as Nigeria’s numbers show – drowning in a gross imbalance between jobs and job seekers.

Hiring managers must mobilise every available resource to match the right person to the right job. In most situations, AI gets it right, without the biases in people’s assessments and decision making. That’s reason enough to introduce AI to African labour markets. A fair and inclusive job market for young people allows merit to prevail – and good business to thrive.

 

Clemens Weitz

Weitz is the CEO of ROAM Africa, Africa’s leading classifieds group.

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