Ideas & Debate

Kenya’s ageing workforce and the digital era

It is impossible to attain our dream of Digital Kenya when our public service is analogue. FILE PHOTO | NMG
It is impossible to attain our dream of Digital Kenya when our public service is analogue. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Is it really possible to attain our dream of Digital Kenya if our public service is analogue?

This thought came to mind on reading a story in the media suggesting that Kenya’s civil service is facing a looming staffing and skills crisis owing to poor human resource and succession planning.

The event referred to in the story was the launch of a new Human Resource Planning and Succession Management Strategy for the public service. Here’s what the numbers say.

According to the Capacity Assessment and Rationalisation of Public Service (CARPS) exercise conducted across national and county government in 2014, 31 per cent of civil servants are aged between 50 and 59 (and in some ministries, the percentage is as high as 40 per cent).

Another 30 per cent are aged 40 to 49. Given retirement at age 60, almost a third of the civil service will leave in the next 10 years, and another third in the following 10 years.

And those are 2014 numbers. A review of the December 2016 payroll for national government (covering 69,441 staff) found that 35 per cent of civil servants are between ages 51 and 60. The review also found that 53 per cent of staff were aged 46 and above.

Before we consider whether this is a crisis or an opportunity, let’s give perspective to these numbers.

Kenya’s demographic profile, according to the 2016 Statistical Abstract, is such that 66 out of every 100 Kenyans is under 19 years of age (23 of who are under the age of three), 16 are between age 19 and 35, 10 are aged 36 to 50 and only eight of every 100 Kenyans are over 50 years of age.

From a civil service employment perspective, 47 per cent of job-eligible Kenyans (age 19 to 35) hold 20 per cent of national government jobs, 30 per cent (age 36 to 50) hold 45 per cent, and the over 50s (23 per cent) hold the other 35 per cent.

It is also observed that the highest staff turnover is among people under 40, especially those in medical and legal services.

Finally, the strategy notes that 45 per cent of national government civil servants have stagnated in their jobs. Think civil servants working without a promotion for periods ranging from four years to 44!

Yes, experience matters, but, like the private sector, shouldn’t the government be turning this potential staffing crisis into a demographic opportunity?

The strategy itself, developed by the Public Service Commission, offers fine thoughts on how to address this crisis — a master human resource plan for the public service, annual human resource planning, human resources IT systems integration — because government has two parallel systems that don’t talk to each other; competency and talent management, internships and other modern HR practice.

Ghost workers
One key recommendation concerns our much-vaunted job evaluation and salary rationalisation. So, I took a peek at the 2017 Economic Survey for more numbers.

To begin, the number of persons employed in the national government totalled 180,000 in 2016, not the 70-odd thousand on the payroll.

Where are the other 110,000 people? This cannot be explained by the payrolls of the Judiciary, Parliament, independent offices and commissions. Did someone say “ghost workers”?

Indeed, a recruitment freeze notwithstanding, the government actually grew by almost 80,000 personnel from 2012. National government numbers fell by 40,000, including transfers to counties.

We got 30,000 more teachers, while parastatals and government controlled institutions hired 6,000 more people. County payrolls grew by 80,000 people in total, including those transfers from government.

Despite claimed wage bill restraint, the public sector payroll rose by 57 per cent (against cumulative inflation of 27 per cent) from Sh320 billion in 2012 to Sh501 billion in 2016.

The county payroll has grown by 672 per cent from Sh12 billion (as local authorities) to Sh96 billion in this time. Indeed, in 2016, the total county wage bill — with 30 per cent fewer workers — slightly exceeded that of the national government.

What’s wrong with this overall picture? While the strategy is a great start, an aging and costly workforce highlights our decidedly analogue, and stridently anti-reform, reality.

Isn’t it time to re-think government in a way that fits Kenya’s digital future? More on this next week.