EAC States: Adopting technical skills for today’s job market

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University education is considered the axle for propelling economic growth and uplifting countries, and this is no different for vocational education and training in East Africa which helps narrow the lack of skilled workforce gaps.

But the reality on the ground paints a negative picture, according to a World Bank report in 2017 that further reveals that the enrollment rates for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa are by far the lowest in the world at 6 per cent.

Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVETS) could offer a solution that could help address this problem that pervades vocational education and training in East Africa. Ironically, some countries like Kenya have hundreds of thousands of unemployed graduates.

The report also suggests that Nigeria, South Africa and Ethiopia have the highest number of universities, standing at 150,136 and 134, respectively, although Uganda tops the ladder in the East African region with 46 universities followed by Kenya at 39 while Tanzania has 33. For vocational education and training in East Africa, there are even fewer well-funded centres to provide the required services. This is a challenge affecting higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, generally.

Despite these high numbers of universities which should translate into economic growth’ based on the number of graduates churned out, experts argue that 90 per cent of the graduates do not meet job market skills.

Most companies in the East African region have to retrain graduates on the on-the-job incurring extra cost.

Alex Awiti, Vice Provost and Interim Dean, the Graduate School of Media and Communication, Aga Khan University, believes that Kenya needs to re-evaluate its university education curriculum to propel its economy through skills required in today’s job market.

“The contradiction of unemployed graduates and a lack of skilled workforce is a problem that Kenya is facing as a result of poor training at the university level and that’s why as a country we continue to produce half-baked graduates who have no industry skills that can scale up our productivity level,” he posits.

He added, “Today, most of our students are not enrolling in areas like engineering and science; these areas face shortages of human resources and capacity within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics as well as agriculture and health. We should focus on these areas to ensure that we have well-competent graduates.”

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This is why East African states must adopt technical skills to lower the high degree of unemployment in the region. Vocational education and training in East Africa could help address this challenge and could be a solution for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Dr. Kevit Desai, Kenya’s Principal Secretary in the State Department of Technical and Vocational Training (TVET), Ministry of Education.

“Education and training for productive employment is important for economic growth and development. Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) is an aspect of the educational process which is viewed as a tool for productivity enhancement towards achieving economic growth. TVET focuses on practical applications of skills learned and are intended to prepare trainees to become effective professionals in a specific vocation. It also equips trainees with a broad range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes indispensable for meaningful work and life participation.”

By embracing TVETS, unemployed graduates could reduce since TVETS offer skills that help with job creation reducing unemployment.

In order for the East African region and the African continent at large to aspire to join the ranks of developed countries, the need to reduce the lack of skilled workforce becomes even more necessary which could provide solutions to higher education in sub-Saharan Africa.

Dr. Awiti advises, “East Africa needs a skilled labour force to construct and maintain roads, buildings, railways, and bridges. Training individuals to be technically skilled mechanics, engineers, shoemakers, and garment makers increases a country’s competitiveness globally. Individuals who acquire TVET training in jewellery-making, auto and refrigerator repairs, electronic repairs and other skills often set up their own businesses and enroll new entrants for training.”

This would definitely help reduce cases of unemployed graduates since there would be more opportunities directly or indirectly created through skills attained in TVETS.

According to the World Bank, skilled workers enhance the quality and efficiency of product development, production, and maintenance and supervise and train workers with lesser skills. As a matter of fact, countries with well-established TVET systems tend to enjoy lower youth unemployment.

This is because the orientation of TVET coupled with the acquisition of employability skills allows it to address issues such as skills mismatch that has impeded smooth school-to-work transitions for many young people. Lower youth unemployment is key to improving lives and building stronger communities necessary for growth.

There is no doubt that Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda are leading their East African counterparts in promoting technical skills training in their respective countries.

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In 2016 Ethiopian Minister of State for Science and Higher Education, Dr. Abdiwasa Abdilahi officiated at the Eastern Africa Skills for Transformation and Regional Integration Project (EASTRIP) launch.

The project saw three East African countries, namely Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, participate in the project. The project supports the development of highly specialized Technical and Vocational Education and Training programmes as well as industry-recognized short-term certificate-level training. It will target regional priority sectors in transport, energy, manufacturing and ICT. With its adoption, unemployed graduates will find skills they can use to create employment themselves.

As a classic case for higher education in sub-Saharan Africa, the World Bank financed EASTRIP with an International Development Association loan of US$210 million and a grant of US$83 million.

US$8 million of the grant will go to the Inter-University Council for East Africa (IUCEA) to facilitate and coordinate the project and implement regional initiatives that would promote the mobility of students and faculty within and beyond the region and to establish a community of practice of TVET in the region.

Dr. Abdilahi said, “When you look at countries like China, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan they have invested heavily and successfully adopted policies for promoting technical training, which have resulted in the emergence of a highly skilled workforce. These countries successfully used technical and vocational training to upskill their economies, which made their workers more productive and their respective economies more innovative. It, therefore, becomes increasingly clear that skills development policies such as TVETs play a critical role in national development.”

In these countries, there are few unemployed graduates since there are means and ways of creating employment reducing the lack of skilled workforce.

Scaling up TVET

Dr. Desai is urging East African states to link TVET sector to the informal sector. East African growing unemployment has forced large numbers of youth to pursue employment in the informal sector, mostly through self-employment or entrepreneurship. It is not surprising that the region has over 80 per cent of workers in the informal sector, either engaged in agriculture or in urban informal economic activities such as selling, where low and unpredictable earnings, poor working conditions, and low productivity are pervasive. In Kenya and Rwanda for instance, three out of four workers are employed in the informal sector.

He added, “The high rates of informality are largely due partly to the upsurge in labour supply compared to the limited pace of job demand in Africa’s formal sector. The informal sector in East Africa has the potential for employment; there is always the debate about formalizing informal activities due to their unregulated nature. Bringing informal sector activities under a regulatory environment, among others, increases fiscal revenues to the state and facilitates access to formal financial services which is necessary for business upscaling to enhance job creation, and consequently growth.”

Dr. Desai revealed that the challenge is how TVET training can produce graduates with skills that can respond to the needs of a highly competitive and dynamic global market and industry.

“As a country, we have proposed linking formal education to industry needs and demands. In the same way, employment concerns should lead to strengthened links between TVET skills and industry demands in the economy. This requires strong collaboration between TVET institutions, the private sector and industry stakeholders in organizing skills training programs and standards, as well as in developing curricula so that training courses in TVET institutions are tailored towards the needs of the industry,” says Dr. Desai.

Dr. Abdilahi is of the opinion that TVET institutions should also keep abreast with labour market analysis and skills forecasts to ensure their training is forward-looking. This will help address the lack of skilled workforce in the region.

“TVET in the region needs to be redesigned to make it attractive to the youth and for people to understand its implications for national development. Therefore, making the paradigm shift in TVET means developing the mindset that TVET prepares young people to become job creators. This becomes a collective responsibility of the state, parents, industry and productive sectors, and learners or students themselves.

Dr. Desai shares his sentiment that utilizing Africa’s growing youth population comes with developing their technical and vocational skills to respond to the different industry needs. Most fundamental to this is about changing the mindset of the TVET sector. If the sector is to meet the increasing demands of the global labour market, it needs to undergo a major transformation by becoming more efficient and collaborative.

Read: Poor infrastructure, lack of government support hurting Kenya’s Technical Institutes

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