Malawi's workforce numbers around 3.5 million, but most of these are subsistence farmers. Given the informality of most employment, it is impossible even to estimate unemployment and underemployment rates in the country. The proportion of wage and salary earners is a low 14 percent, and threatens to fall further as civil service down-sizing and privatization lay-offs take effect.
Growth and job creation are severely hindered by poor standards of education and low literacy levels. Only 58 percent of the adult population is able to read and write, and only 4.5 percent of primary school children advance to secondary level, a figure low even by the standards of Malawi's neighbors. The Muluzi government is committed to improving education, but the massive increases in enrollments it has spurred (in particular by removing school fees in 1994) have swamped the schools and eroded educational quality. The result is a workforce poorly adapted to most industrial and manufacturing jobs, and unsuited even for certain types of commercial farming.
Disease is another significant problem, intensified by the over-loading of the health system by the HIV/AIDS crisis. In 1999-2000 government spending on health care accounted for 2.8 percent of GDP—or US$5 spent per Malawian—a level which was radically insufficient. Poor sanitation (only 45 percent of the population has access to clean water) and malnutrition are also fundamental problems, and until they can be properly addressed—which will only be done with foreign help—the productivity of the Malawian workforce will remain badly crippled.