Arts, Culture and…Workforce Development. What?

Storytelling.  Musical concerts. Art museums. Traditional dance performances. Crafts markets.  Workforce development.

Which one of the above doesn’t fit?  According to a report recently published by the United Nations, they all fit together seamlessly; arts and culture is an unappreciated form of creating sustainable jobs in cities around the world, and especially in Africa.  UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, published a landmark study, Global Report on Culture for Sustainable Urban Development which contends that culture is a key resource of sustainable urban development, including job creation and workforce development.  

When we think about creating jobs for Africa, we often think about manufacturing, agriculture, and services as leading industries that can ignite job creation.  But the creative industries are already playing a role in helping to create the jobs that Africa so desperately needs to employ the explosive growth in people under the age of 25 coming into the job market in the coming decades.

Los Angeles film industry employs millions with highly specialized skills

The world’s best example of an economy driven by a workforce highly trained in the arts is Los Angeles.  Los Angeles is a city whose primary industry is culture – Hollywood produces films and music that are exported to the world, and this industry is considered the primary employer in the Los Angeles area.  Workforce development efforts in Los Angeles map workers into the creative industries, as this is where the jobs are in that region. According to “Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles,” published by L.A. Creates, workforce development in the arts falls into three categories of training:  1) better preparation for a career in arts and culture during middle and high school years; 2) training unskilled workers in specific skills to respond to employer needs; 3) entrepreneurial training to teach people how to earn a living in the arts.

Nollywood employs 1 million Nigerians on the back of an old television workforce training effort

Editorial credit:  Kunle Afolayan, film maker.

A well known example of how culture can create jobs is Nollywood, the $3 billion Nigerian film industry which now employs approximately one million Nigerians.  The current state of Nollywood does not provide for a glowing case study in workforce development, but the role that workforce development has played as the backdrop to what we know today as Nollywood is an interesting story.

In the 1970s, the Nigerian government launched the Nigerian Television Authority, which became successful in the 1980s.  The government trained a workforce of skilled technicians in the production of indigenous film made for TV, including script writers, editors, cameramen, sound and light experts, and post production editing.

In the 1990s, the Nigerian Television Authority changed is strategy, and abandoned local production in favor of imported film.  This left the workforce trained in film production with no work, and created the enabling environment to redeploy those skills in the birth of Nollywood.

Cape Town Jazz Festival hosts workshops including music event management, arts journalism

Editorial credit: Gregory Franz.

Case Study: Cape Town Jazz Festival

The organisers of the annual Cape Town International Jazz Festival, billed as Africa’s Grandest Gathering, have formulated a highly innovative workforce development programme which takes advantage of the drawing power of the festival which not only brings in tens of thousands of tourists to enjoy the music, but scores of global professionals in journalism and the arts who travel to Cape Town to cover the festival each year.

The South African government funds the basic costs for a series of programmes including the following:

Music Career Workshops

This program of provides training within the music industry, including live event production.  The course takes place over four weeks leading up to the Festival, and the top performers in the course are invited to shadow the global professionals who are flown in to manage the Festival

Arts Journalism

This weeklong course is open to journalists and journalism students, and teaches the specialized nuances of writing about the arts, with the Festival as the primary subject matter.  The course features guest lecturers from some of the world’s top publications who fly to South Africa to write about the global icons who perform on stage at the Festival.


This weeklong program is available for professional and amateur photographers who aspire to develop a career in music photography.  The course delves into the concepts, theory and aesthetics of music photography, and advises students on how to develop a career as a music photographer.

Segou, Mali, is training local youth about their history to provide tours at their annual festival

Editorial credit: Ruud Zwart

Case Study – Segou, Mali

A case study highlighted in the UNESCO Global Report is Segou, Mali.  Segou is the former capital of the ancient Bambara kingdom of seventeenth century, and it sits on the banks of the Niger River, about two hours from Mali’s main primary urban capital of Bamako.   Segou is a rich cultural treasure from an architectural standpoint. It has unique Sudanese structures with striking terra cotta buildings that mix seamlessly with colonial elements. The city has a population of just over 150,000, and has suffered unemployment rates significantly higher than the rest of Mali.

Using this unique architectural environment as its stage, local entrepreneurs launched the Festival sur le Niger to gather local and international artists, and showcase Mali’s unique cultural industries.  The Festival brings 30,000 visitors to Segou each year, and has created over 2,000 jobs, largely in the creative and tourism sectors. Two workforce development institutions have emerged to serve the resurgence of Segou: The Kore Cultural Center and the Ndomo Center.  The Kore Cultural center trains locals in the Segou traditions to ensure authenticity of the Segou culture in the annual festival. The Ndomo Center trains unemployed local youth in Bogolan weaving, the products of which are sold to tourists at the annual Festival.

Cameroonian workers are challenged by the culture shift when they move from rural to urban areas

Editorial credit: jbor / Shutterstock, Inc.

Case Study:  Home Town Associations, Cameroon

Africa’s economic rise at present is due in large part to urbanization, and in turn, the migration of people from rural to urban areas in search of high paying employment.  Often the change from the rural community to city life is a difficult transition to make, particularly when one member of the family makes the trek alone and leaves the rest of the family behind.  Recognizing that the culture that one leaves in the rural area is an important component of who each worker is, Hometown Associations have developed in Cameroon, and other African countries as well, as a means of supporting newly arrived urban workers.

The Unesco Global Report reports on how Hometown Associations in Cameroon demonstrate play a big role in the lives of migrant workers. These associations help workers settle into their new environments with temporary housing, and assistance in other administrative matters such as accessing identification cards, opening of bank accounts, etc.

The Hometown Associations create a bond among their members through a central rallying point – concern for their community back home in the rural village.  Thus the Hometown Associations come together to provide financial, technical and political support for development programmes back in the home village they share in common.  Thus, their unique culture and traditions become a galvanizing force in supporting workers transitioning from rural to urban life, which is an important component to preparing rural workers for new urban jobs.

Dilijan, Armenia’s workforce training is focused on developing skills to support the arts

Editorial credit: Artem Avetisyan / Shutterstock, Inc.

Case Study: Dilijan, Armenia

This city was once one of the Soviet Union’s leading cultural centres in the early twentieth century, attracting artists, directors, musicians and actors who often staged performances and exhibitions, making Dilijan a magnet for cultural tourism at that time.  Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the population declined, and so did the economy, leaving the city abandoned and in disrepair.

A culture driven strategy was employed to revitalize the Dilijan, and since 2010, the area has re-emerged subsequent to a massive urban renewal program.  Arts and culture is the centerpiece of the curriculum for the local high school. Quite significant has been the creation of the Tumo Centre for Creative Technologies, which focuses on building a local workforce with specialization in the arts.  The Tumo Centre seeks to prepare youth for the jobs of the twenty first century by providing extensive coursework in film making, animation, video game development, and web design. The investment in an arts and culture focused workforce reinforces the reputation of Dilijan as a capital for the arts, and in turn, attracts more workers with these skills from other areas as well.  The arts and culture aspect of Dilijan workforce development is an important driver in the city’s economic development, as well.

African youth learning about music production technology

Editorial credit: Ollyy / Shutterstock, Inc.


In Africa, and throughout the world, arts and culture provides a dynamic, resilient sector to employ graduates of workforce development efforts.  Arts and culture is often overlooked, but as Africa races to employ its exploding youth population over the next fifty years, arts and culture should be included as one of the strategic sectors in which to invest workforce development efforts to create a pool of talent that is highly qualified to work in this significant sector.

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