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February 22, 2019


Mismatch in university training
Mismatch in university training

Any day now, the results of the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education will be announced. And thereafter “the lucky few” will secure a place at one of the local universities.

The rest will strive to secure some kind of tertiary training because we are now a country in which most young people who do not go beyond secondary school are effectively condemned to the life of a labourer, or a domestic servant.

I put the term “the lucky few” in quotes because only about a quarter of secondary school leavers end up studying for a degree. But of these, about 80 per cent will be enrolled for degrees in Arts and Social Sciences, and only 20 per cent will study something in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering or Medicine.

And yet, it is in the area of hands-on applied technology that there is ongoing demand for qualified personnel, and even a shortage in some sectors. We are actually training many of our university students for jobs which no longer exist — in the previously lucrative retail banking sector, for example – while at the same time not producing enough skilled manpower of the kind that we do need.

Consider this extract from an opinion column published in the Star a while back, and written by the CEO of the Kenya Pipeline Company, Joe Sang, “…Kenya is still importing pipeline welders and coaters from Nigeria, South Africa, Lebanon and China to build for us our pipelines. Indeed, lack of requisite skills for the oil and gas sector remains a major challenge…to address this challenge, the KPC has set up the Morendat Centre of Excellence for Oil & Gas Pipelines…to reduce dependence on expatriate workers.”

Now if this new institution works as planned, we should see some amazing progress in years to come. We have already been down this road with the founding of the Kenya Utalii College back in the mid-1970s, through the generous assistance of the Swiss government.

Prior to the establishment of the Utalii College, most of Kenya’s leading hotels, beach resorts, or game lodges, had German or Swiss managers holding all the top positions. Yet, now what we find is that relatively few Kenyan tourism establishments have expatriate management: Instead there are very many Kenyans trained for the hospitality sector working as expatriates all over East Africa.

Going forward, I believe that there are many young men who, if there were assured of a decent income and the possibility of long-term employment (not to mention even higher earnings if employed in a foreign country), would much rather seek to train as highly skilled pipeline welders for the oil industry, than to obtain a social science university degree, which is often just a preliminary to many years of unemployment.

Now, although my intention was to lead up to why the planned East African German University of Applied Sciences will give young Kenyans infinitely more — and better — opportunities of the kind that the Morendat Centre of Excellence represents, let me save that for next week. For now here is a story from my visit to Estonia earlier this year.

Estonia is a small but prosperous northern European nation, in which just about everyone has a middle-class income, thanks to its booming ICT sector and its really tiny population (just 1.3 million people). I was reminded of how widespread this prosperity is when I had to take a taxi, and accidentally got in by the left front door and found myself in the driver’s seat.

The taxi driver, who had been finishing his cigarette outside all that time, laughed and told me that much the same thing had happened to him when he was on holiday in Indonesia earlier in the year. He kept getting into the “wrong side” as he was used to cars which had a steering wheel on the left, and so he promptly got into the right front seat, where he encountered the steering wheel.

That’s how it is in economically advanced nations: Taxi drivers get to vacation in exotic places. And that is how it will be one day in Kenya. Specialised welders and others trained in advanced hands-on applied technologies will have very comfortable incomes.

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