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The extant literature on responding to the challenges of graduate employability approaches the issue primarily from the perspective of graduate preparation. It is often argued that the attributes, skills and knowledge learners acquire during their stay at universities have direct implications for later employment. However, the increasing incidence and duration of graduate unemployment can result from the disparity between the number of graduates educational institutions produce and the capacity of the labour market to absorb them. Where achieved, a positive link between the two is regarded as an essential ingredient in facilitating graduate employment.

Indeed, producing the right number and mix of graduates the market can accommodate remains one of the major challenges of many higher education systems- requiring mechanisms for bridging the ensuing gaps. Efforts in this direction include the setting up of labour market information systems that can provide the national data needed.

Experiences and challenges

Ethiopia has a long history of planning the outputs of its educational system. In fact, it remains one of the countries that introduced the first sectoral planning exercise south of the Sub-Saharan Africa. As part of its national economic plan the “Ten- year Plan for the Controlled Expansion of Ethiopian Education: 1955- 1965” was initiated in 1955, dictated by the principles of what one writer called “invest for what you get in return; educate only as many as can be absorbed by the developing economy and administration; and educate only the type you need”.

Although the higher education sector was included in this planning trajectory until the demise of the socialist Dergue in 1991, this practice has been abandoned by the current government owing to its market-oriented economic policies. The fact that this has been happening with the backdrop of a rapidly massifying system has made the strategy of leaving everything to the market more challenging. The country’s 180 public and private higher education institutions (HEIs) currently churn out more than 150,000 graduates per year. With an annual enrollment capacity approaching 900,000 the graduation rate is expected to more than double in a few years’ time.

One of the mechanisms by which the country has responded to the challenges of rising student numbers has been by adjusting the annual student intake of public institutions into a program mix of 70/30 science and technology versus social sciences and humanities with the hope that this form of planning aligns with Ethiopia’s plan of becoming a middle-income country by 2025, with the corresponding job creation opportunities envisaged. Moreover, the Ministry of Education—working closely with public universities—is planning to raise the percentage of graduates employed within 12 months after graduation to 80 percent. Another sectoral plan which could have supplemented the national effort, but has so far received little practical attention is the establishment of a national labour information system.

A labour market information system (LMIS)can provide a variety of advantages to policy makers, employers and employees, universities, training institutions, and other relevant stakeholders by facilitating the collection, analysis and dissemination of relevant information about labour market—skills and supply, progress in meeting employment goals, and other pertinent data. In addition to facilitating labour mobility and the hiring process such a system can assist HEIs in aligning their programs and curricula with the requirements and absorption capacities of the labour market and influence the quality and relevance of their provisions.

In spite of these wider benefits the practice of setting up an efficient LMIS remains a rare and challenging exercise across many countries, due to the high level of commitment, technical expertise, resources and sectoral coordination it demands.

The Way Forward

As early as 2003 recommendations were made to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education to set up a Labor Market Observatory through the Higher Education Strategy Center in order to monitor labor market demand for graduates, assess graduate job performance, and disseminate relevant findings to higher education institutions. The specific tasks set to be accomplished by the observatory were conducting regular, detailed surveys of the demand/supply balance for university graduates at least once every three years, collecting information on job vacancies, salary structures, unemployed graduates, tracer study comparisons of public and private university graduates, employer satisfaction with graduate employees, demand for specific skills, etc. Current developments in Ethiopia’s higher education sector echo the need for examining and responding to the same call again.

Fortunately, the need for LMIS appears to be gaining traction both at national and sectoral levels. Government recognizes the relevance of information on labour market skills and the need for having close links with existing economic planning and forecasting efforts. Although the federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, and its regional counterparts— Bureaus of Labour and Social Affairs—and informal channels have so far been used to access labour information and employment services, they have not been able to provide comprehensive and efficient services due to various limitations. The Education Sector Development Program (2015/16- 2019/20) also underscores the importance of the scheme in terms of influencing the relevance of courses given at HEIs and envisages the establishment of such a system. However, little seems to have been achieved in terms of its practical realization.

It is now clear that in addition to serving as a component of a stronger national database, the availability of a labour market information system will make an important contribution to the Ethiopian higher education sector in terms of improved focus, efficient use of resources, and addressing the scale, causes and effects of unemployability that is becoming a serious challenge to the system. Towards that end, it is a propitious time for the government to urgently put in place such a system in the interest of aligning the outputs of Ethiopia’s HEIs with the capacities and needs of the job market.


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