While gathering data for a research project, I got to learn that most large companies resident in Kenya are suffering from lack of skilled labour.
They say there is difficulty finding, for example, a trained plant operator yet we have millions of youth out there looking for a job. This is as a result of a mismatch between what we teach in colleges and what the industry needs.
Although the problem is not unique to Kenya, other countries are finding sustainable solutions. In the US, for example, President Obama in his State of the Union address tasked his Vice-President, Joe Biden, to conduct a review of federal training to find ways to reform them mainly by moving away from “train and pray” programmes that give people skills that may or may not lead to a job.
He said: “What we need to do is look at where are the jobs and take a job-driven approach to training.”
There is a need, therefore, to review job opportunities and give training priority to jobs of the future. Predictably, the digital revolution will come with new jobs that we need to train for today.
These include advanced manufacturing, often referred to as additive manufacturing, digital economy and creative industries, low carbon energy, life sciences, financial and business services, engineering, construction, retail, tourism, hospitality and leisure.
Successful countries often rely on what is referred to as triple helix, a tripartite collaboration between universities, industry and the government to map out training priorities. This is what will move us from the false belief that low wage is a competitive advantage.
The best strategy for sustainable competitiveness should be based on product quality. Further, we must invest in Research and Development (R&D) as a strategy to create future jobs.
We have been copy-cats for too long to the extent that there is virtually no innovation in the manufacturing sector. Our local furniture makers, for example, have had no reason to be innovative but nearly all hotel furniture are imported.
Innovative countries have nurtured their startup companies, supporting them in R&D, financing good ideas and creating a supportive ecosystem. In our case, we have destroyed technical and vocational education institutions (Tivet) in favour of theory-centred progmmes at universities.
Existing Tivets “train and pray” and as a result we have discouraged youth from considering vocational training. Instead, we must begin to encourage and support skills training.
The skills gap in Kenya is so severe that there are fleets of vehicles that lack qualified drivers (with trade certification).
For sometime, local vehicle assemblers have pushed builders to upgrade their quality to international standards but none has observed these standards simply because the market accepts poor quality.
Across all other sectors, there is virtually no standards. Lack of standards is as a result of poor training or no training at all in many trades. It is often difficult to get a good plumber, carpenter or mechanic yet our unemployment rate is high.
Competitive countries ensure skills certification and strict adherence to international standards.
If ever there was a time we needed the services of the directorate of industrial training, it is now. The rapid changes in technology will not allow us to continue to dilly-dally on training for future competitiveness.
The usual message of lack of funds must stop and create incentives for the private sector to assume the role of training that meets industry requirement.
Government as a regulator will simply enforce standards with strict targets of trained Kenyans in different trades.
Our country is in dire need of skilled labour for economic development. It forms the core of apprenticeships and provides the necessary capability, capacity and productivity for Kenya’s competitiveness.
It is the basis of employability solutions that can alleviate unemployment problems facing Kenya today. No country has ever developed without a strong skills development programme and collaborations in R&D to create a supportive ecosystem.
The writer is a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi and a former Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Communication.