Ideas & Debate

Give technical schools right content in ongoing reforms

Education secretary Fred Matiang’i: The government needs to convince Kenyans that technical skills can lead to promising careers and opportunities. PHOTO | FILE
Education secretary Fred Matiang’i: The government needs to convince Kenyans that technical skills can lead to promising careers and opportunities. PHOTO | FILE 

When the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination results were announced, the concern was how many students were to miss university places.

It was unfortunate that we missed an opportunity to emphasise career opportunities that are also available to the school leavers in technical colleges.

I guess this is because the majority of Kenyans still incorrectly believe that the natural progression to successful education is a university degree.

Technical skills are equally important, and indeed more job openings in Kenya are for technical diplomas than university degrees.

I need to acknowledge that the government has over the last four years systematically put in place most of the legal, regulatory and institutional framework necessary to facilitate effective development of technical skills.

The government now needs to transform the Kenyan mindset to accept that technical skills can lead to promising careers and opportunities.

Experience in technically successful countries has shown that an effective national technical and vocational skills development programme requires a strong symbiotic partnership between government agencies, academia and sector industries.

In my petroleum consultancy, I occasionally get involved in the development of capacity for oil and gas technical skills and this is how the other day I found myself attending the open day of the newly launched Eastlands College of Technology.

The college is located in the periphery of Nairobi’s Industrial Area and offers quality training in a number of technical skills including welding.

The institution is part of the notable brand of education institutions under the Strathmore Education Trust, which includes Strathmore University.

This college is an affirmation by the Trust that national education systems are incomplete without first-class technical and vocational training. It is also an example of the critical roles the academia play to nurture technical skills.

At the open day, the industry perspective on technical skills was best presented by Brian Muriuki, the country manager for Shell International Exploration and Production currently undertaking oil and gas exploration in the Kenyan coastal and offshore prospects.

He emphasised that demand for first-class oil and gas welders will be huge when the country embarks on commercialisation of oil and gas finds, especially during field development and pipeline construction.

He stressed that whereas local content regulations mandate oil companies to source skills local, these must be certified to international standards. If such skills are not available locally they shall inevitably be imported.

Mr Muriuki went further to say that experienced welders in the sector usually fetch much higher pay than graduate engineers.

He also gave an example of how Kenya can and should emulate Philippines, a country that has become a major global “exporter” of technical skills with massive diaspora dollar inflows into the country.

The sector industries like Shell have a major role to play in defining the demand side of the technical skills. They determine the number of job opportunities, the job content, and the training standards that must be met.

These inputs are necessary in determining training capacity and in drafting of sector training curricula.

Further, it is also the industry that should provide openings for internships which are critical for practical experience needed to produce ready-to-work technical diploma holders. Without effective industry participation, technical training will always fall short of expectations.

Technical high schools

I also need to acknowledge the support being provided by various industry foundations to link technical skills training with the industry. These include KCB Foundation, HF Foundation, and the Federation of Master Builders.

Specifically for the oil and gas sector we have the Soga (Skills for Oil and Gas Africa) project , a British, Germany and Danish-funded effort, that has so far successfully linked the efforts of government, academia and industry to develop and deliver oil and gas technical skills and jobs.

The Soga project, together with the two technical universities of Nairobi and Mombasa are developing master trainers for technical skills trainers.

The project is also working with the curriculum authorities to develop competency based oil and gas technical training curricula. In the Turkana oilfields, and jointly with the upstream investors, Soga is currently creating capacity for technical enterprises.

Finally, we may need to re-invent the concept of ‘technical high schools’. I recall at Independence we had Nakuru High School, which offered technical subjects among other examinable subjects at Form Four.

This prepared students to choose to join universities for engineering degrees or to enter polytechnics for technical diplomas. This school produced many of the initial engineers and technical support for our new country.

We also need to align the structure of technical training curricula into a modular format that can allow progression from technical diplomas to technical degrees (BTech). I understand this is what happens in Germany.

The open day at the Eastlands Technology College triggered me to think through the entire subject of technical training in Kenya. I urge the education authorities to critically debate how best to blend technical skills training in the entire education systems.

Wachira is director of Petroleum Focus Consultants. Email: [email protected]