Bold Ideas that Could Help Develop Liberia Fast – Educationand,Economic, andEmployment Opportunities (the 3Es)

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“No other investment yields as great a return as the investment in education. An educated workforce is the foundation of every community and the future of every economy.”- Brad Henry

Background
There have been volumes of research conducted on current challenges Liberia faces particularly in the areas of education, economic and employment opportunities. After 12 years of sustained efforts and billions of dollars spent by both the Liberian government and the international partners, Liberia is still nowhere close to solving these challenges. In fact, President Weah described current Liberian situation in his State of the Nation Addressas: “Our economy is broken; our government is broke. Our currency is in free fall; inflation is rising,…Unemployment is at an unprecedented high and our foreign reserves are at an all-time low”.Exasperating these conditions is the departure of the UN Mission in Liberia which underscores the urgency of the need for the government to fully provide and improve state security services and ensure political stability.The young people account for about 65% of Liberia’s 4.4 million populationwhich means that they could be either a driving force of economic growth and development or a conduit of violence and insecurity. This decreases the margin of error for the Weah administration to get it right and fast in terms of fixing the education system, growing the economy, and improve employment for the poor. Let’s examine these problems further:
Problems
1. Education:
The Liberian education is arguably the weakest link within the Liberian development agenda. In 2013 President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf declared Liberia’s education system “a mess” and demanded a complete overhaul. Education is the key underlining element of the UNDP Capacity Building in Liberia which it defined as a process of obtaining and maintaining one’s own objectives. According to (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Liberia has the highest proportion of children missing out on primary school education, … with nearly two-thirds of its children never stepping inside a classroom. Another report that measures human development including the Human Development Index (HDI), indicates Liberia’s HDI value for 2015 as 0.427— which put the country in the low human development category— positioning it at 177 out of 188 countries and territories. The HDI is a summary measure for assessing progress in three basic dimensions of human development: a long and healthy life, access to knowledge and a decent standard of living.
2. Economic
When President Weah said in his State of Nation Address “Our economy is broken; our government is broke”, he wasn’t kidding. Liberia’s economy only recovered by -1.6% in 2016 to 2.6% in 2017.This slowdown in economic activity has had a negative impact on fiscal revenue, inflation, exchange rate stability, and poverty rate (which currently stands at 49.8%).According to African Development Bank, other destabilizing factors include high inflation which was last recorded at 13.90% in December 2017, compared with 7.3% the previous year, driven by rapid depreciation of the Liberian dollar against the U.S. dollar (of 20% in the first half of 2017 compared to 11% in the same period in 2016).The resultant is rise in the cost of living, especially the cost of food, which is mostly imported, increased fiscal pressures.
3. Employment:
Limited employment opportunities especially for young people continues to undermine the welfare of Liberians in both urban and rural areas. According to report on ‘Youth Unemployment in Post-Conflict Liberia’ published May 26, 2016, the risk youth unemployment poses to Liberia is too high. “…State-actors and policymakers have no choice, but to work towards mitigating this existing crisisin order to cultivate socio-economic equality and political stability”.
This situation is forcing many young children into selling goods in the streets and apparent growth in the numbers of drug dependent/addicted youth living in the streets, and are trapped in object poverty. “They live in communities where most residents cannot be absorbed by the workforce or are unemployable – a phenomenon that is structural because of the mismatch, between skills that these Liberians have, if any, and the employment opportunities that the market offers”. Most Liberian youth are less busy and economically weak, the rate of hardship, drug abuse, gambling, prostitution, armed robbery and burglary will remain sky-scraping.The complete departure of the UN Mission in Liberia which employed thousands of Liberians throughout the 15 counties now must find jobs somewhere else or add the already deplorable unemployment situation.
The truth is these problems cannot be solved by a singleapproach, organization or governmental agency. To make substantial impact, there need to be a collective approach dedicated to finding ways to save existing jobs and create new ones as soon as possible while growing the economy.

Solutions
The current Liberia’s problems are vast and deeply rooted in lack of trained workforce, economic opportunities and fiscal constraints. Even in advanced economies like USA, Europe and elsewhere, there are always problems in balancing Education, Economic and Employment needs (3E’s).When the Great Recession in 2008 hit, the newly then elected President Barack Obama and the US government created an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The primary objective was to save existing jobs and create new ones as soon as possible. To do that three things needed to happen simultaneously, save and create new jobs, retrain existing workers for new in-demand industries, grow the economy fast. These three problems always influence each other in a fluid way – the strength of each depends on, and determines the strength of the others. When people become unemployed due to lack of economic opportunities, and their employability skills quickly get rusty and obsolete so they cannot just return to the jobs that now required new and or upgraded skills.

This is same situation what happened in Liberia on exponential scale for a very long time due to the 14 years civil war. Most economic opportunities disappeared along with the jobs people were used to doing. Not to mention the young people who never have skills in the first place and are now working age and are looking for the same non-existing opportunities as older poor-working class. The new President of Liberia Mr. George Manneh Weah has his priority right when he said in his inauguration speech “I intend to construct the greatest machinery of pro-poor governance in the history of this country. I will do more than my fair share to meet your expectations. I ask you to meet mine, for I cannot do it alone”. In this context, the President is right, there no single approach or organization or governmental agency can make substantial impact. The solutions entaila big and bold ideas working in tandem and to find ways to save existing jobs and create new ones as soon as possible while growing the economy. This document illustrates four main objectives synergistically linked together to help explain ways to increase the number of well-trained workforce and increase employment while improving the economic outcomes. It is simple to understand and flexible to apply to large/small and local and international projects.

Objective:1) Align & connect education to workforce needs, 2) Use data to decide next steps, 3) Partner with other entities, and 4) Connect resources to critical need areas. These objectives, when properly planned and executed will ultimately lead to surge in job creation, economic productivities, and equitable wealth creation.
Details
Objective 1:Align & Connect Education to Workforce Needs
Develop, align, and connect the education and training pipeline with the needs of the local/national economies by coordinating strategic priorities and plans across the education and workforce system.
Strategy
* Career Options Exposure: Create and align Career Pathways and career options with the needs of Liberia businesses to ensure more Liberians are aware of viable paths to career entry and career building, exposed to careers at an earlier age, empowered with the information needed to best use valuable resources, and workforce-ready faster.
* Postsecondary Opportunities in High School: Increase postsecondary opportunities in high school to ensure more students graduate high school with specialized knowledge or credentials to enter in-demand occupations, start businesses, or continue education with less time to completion (most Liberians start school late anyway especially girls).
* Workforce Readiness: Align workforce readiness services among county programs and agencies, such that Liberians have the employability skills necessary to obtain wealth generating employment.
* Transportation Services: Provide transportation assistance to Liberians in rural and urban areas, in order to address the fundamental challenge of connecting education, training, and work opportunities with those citizens who need them most. This will help release congestions in Monrovia

Objective 2:Use DATA to Decide Next Steps
Create a centralized data system to collect, integrate and use workforce and economic development data to inform policy, track progress, and measure success.
Strategy
* Use Data to Decrease Labor Supply and Demand Gap: Utilize nationwide data system to decrease the skills gap by defining determinants and benchmarks along all levels of education and training that lead to employability in identified ecosystems, evaluating and utilizing competencies and assessments, and identifying and working to minimize existing data gaps.
* LIB-JobMatch System: Launch LIB-JobMatch as a free, web-based job-matching and labor market information system. LIB-JobMatch will provide job seekers, employers and training providers with easy-to-use tools that support a wide range of activities. Users may create and post a resume, determine eligibility for government funded workforce programs, search for the ideal job or job candidate, search for the ideal training or service provider and more. This also help international companies to consider Liberia when contemplating move and expansion in Africa.

Objective 3: Partner With Other Entities to Succeed
Build partnerships between local industry and education at the regional level particularly in agriculture and other trending industries.
Strategy
Local National Partnerships: Cultivate and maintain productive relationships between local/regional employers, educators, and other workforce partners to ensure an appropriately skilled workforce through Key Economic Networks. Build on programs that are already succeeding.

Objective 4:Connect Resources to Critical Need Areas
Optimize use of resources and incentives to achieve the short and long-term goals.
Strategy
* Optimize Cross-Agency Resources: Identify and recommend creative, cross-agency, and cross-sector funding models that support similar workforce programs and include agency programs that potentially benefit from public-private partnerships.
* Inter ministries/agencies should prioritize training local residents for jobs particularly women and youth prior to undertaking major and or long-term projects, concerned should
Recommended areas for focus:
This document strongly recommends the Liberian government and partners to make:
I. Substantial investment in short-term Vocational Training (such as machine operation, carpentry, construction trades, agricultural machinery/technology, auto-mechanic including STEM: Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). Special focus should be placed on college graduates who cannot find jobs in their respective fields of studies. They should be retrained in demanding fields such as information technology-computer programmers, cyber security, virtual customer service consultant
II. Substantial investment in Infrastructure Building (healthcare, agriculture, roads, tourism, technology development)
III. Substantial investment in Entertainment Industry (particularly in sport (we should capitalize on President George Weah’s popularity in sport. In effect, we should set a goal of making Liberia sport center in West Africa
These ideas will produce optimum results when they are championed from top down. The leadership of the country must embrace and push the ideas in a collective manner by incorporating them into it’s overall ‘PRO-POOR’ governance agenda and implement them through the county governments and projects. Most contract/concession agreements can be structured to include the number of jobs created and slots that must be occupied by Liberians through an ON-THE-JOB TRAINING or APPRENTICESHIP system (as commonly known in USA& Europe). After all, faster human resources development coupled with rapid job growth is the best way to make Liberia more competitive while bridging the rich and poor divide.

Accountability/Transparency Model
To succeed, accountability and transparency will be key. In this model, in addition to using a quota for local businesses, similar quota should be assessed for total hours worked by workers who are recruited and or trained by local businesses/organizations (who also act as an intermediary between general contractors, local workers, and local business owners). This will provide for needed accountability and transparency to ensure that the recruits are properly trained and work-ready and they are being hired by contractingcompanies and local business owners. Additionally, each contracting company should be required/encouraged to mentor local contractors/ businesses who should also be required to hire a quota from the pool of local skilled trainees who have met certain qualifications. The outcomes are then reported on a monthly/quarterly bases and improvements are made according data generated.
Conclusion
“…economic growth does not come from dollars in people’s pockets, it comes from ideas in their heads…”. George Gilder
There is no single idea or approach that can magically solve all of Liberia’s problems. However, there are some approaches that are worth exploring. The primary ideas illustrated in the paper are some key components that could help accelerate the development of Liberian economy, improve job creation and the education system. They are proposed in an abstract form to give readers the opportunity to mold it into their own projects, large or small. They include aligning and connecting education/training to workforce needs, using data to decide next steps, partnering with enabling entities as well as connecting resources to critical areas need. To ensure faster and larger impact on the nation, top leadership must support it from initiation to implementation. Flexibility is also key to success, not being a ‘one size fits all’ scenario, but one that is flexible and responsive to local needs.
I am a firm believer that the only stupid or bad idea is the one that is never shared. One speaker said, the richest place on earth is the grave yard because people had great ideas but they simply never shared and took them with them to their graves.

About the Author:
VAMADU A. SHERIFF is a workforce development professional with over 14+ years’ experience in non-profit management,expertise in finance/marketing leadership; grant development and management; strategy/policy development; staff recruitment/training and development; community relationship building. Strong business acumen combined with expertise in policy context for workforce development standards; emerging trends; and state and federal regulations resulting in the transformation of an under-performing program into a recognized workforce development program. Expertise in project management developing and leading highly diverse teams in the execution of high-quality, fiscally sound programs. International work experience in the Middle East with fluency in Arabic. Sheriff has an MBA with concentration in finance and strategic planning from Washington University in St. Louis, John M. Olin School of Business, St. Louis, Missouri-USA and B. S. in Chemistry & Minor in Mathematics from Missouri Baptist University, St. Louis, Missouri-USA. Tel: 314-276-8311 or vamadu.sheriff@gmail.com.
References:
* Human Development Report 2016, http://hdr.undp.org/sites/all/themes/hdr_theme/country-notes/LBR.pdf.
* African Economic Outlook (AEO) 2018, https://www.afdb.org/en/countries/west-africa/liberia/liberia-economic-outlook/
* Sustainable Poverty Mitigation in Liberia: Understanding Youth Underclass and Education Crisis, https://www.frontpageafricaonline.com/index.php/op-ed/5105-sustainable-poverty-mitigation-in-liberia-understanding-youth-underclass-and-education-crisis
* Liberia National Capacity Development Strategy, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/youthpol/en/equest.fileutils.dochandle?p_uploaded_file_id=79
* Capacity Development in a Post? Conflict Context: Challenges, Prospects and Lessons Learnt – The Case of Liberia, http://www.undp.org/content/dam/aplaws/publication/en/publications/capacity-development/capacity-development-in-a-postconflict-context-the-case-of-liberia/Capacity%20Development%20in%20a%20Post%20Crisis%20Situtation_Liberia.pdf
* Youth Unemployment in Post-Conflict Liberia, http://theliberiandialogue.org/2016/05/26/youth-unemployment-in-post-conflict-liberia/