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September 25, 2018

Firm tackles stigma against fundis to fill skills gap in Kenyan industry

Krones East Africa MD Nicho Wolmarans (C) talks to apprentices at the facility
Krones East Africa MD Nicho Wolmarans (C) talks to apprentices at the facility

Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a young man or woman walking in the streets of Nairobi with a placard, asking for a job.

These are young university graduates who have “tarmacked” until they resorted to desperate means to get employment.

While a degree was once a ticket to the middle class, opportunities have now grown limited.

An odd fact in Kenya, which is absent in the West, is that there is stigma that if you are fundi, you are not in the right place in your life.

Many youths want to be dressed in nice suits and to take a seat in an office.

This is the perception Krones, a German manufacturing giant specialised in making bottles, is trying to change.

“We need to create awareness because everybody thinks a fundi sits on the side of the road, dirtying his hands while making something. This is not right,” says Henning Post, Krones head of training for East Africa region.

He points out that the economy won't function without technicians and hands-on people.

“If there is no manufacturing, nothing will happen. We need these technical people,” he stresses.

Post says from his experience, technical people are being looked down upon.

APPRENTICE PLAN

To counter this, Krones is running an apprenticeship programme in Ruiru, Kiambu county. Among its beneficiaries are Mary Maina, 22.

Seated at the company’s premises, she stares at a board with several protruding wires of different sizes and colours.

She moves her arms steadily around the board under the supervision of an automation specialist.

Maina is among 10 apprentices selected by Krones. Based at the Sukari Industrial Estate, just off the Thika Super Highway, the Krones facility is a marvel of technology. And it has top German and Kenyan engineers working to serve customers in the region.

Maina admits she is plugging the practical skills gap left by studies at Mount Kenya University, which she graduated from last December.

“I liked engineering from the beginning. I did electrical engineering,” she says, adding that she previously wanted to pursue computer engineering.

Maina is the only female selected in this inaugural group, but that does not intimidate her. She says her colleagues are “very supportive”.

But at the same time, Maina admits the programme she is undertaking is very different from her earlier studies.

“We do more practical as opposed to a lot of theory that we were exposed to in colleges,” she says.

TWO-YEAR TRAINING

Fellow apprentice Michael Musyoka, 22, says he has learned new things. Musyoka did a diploma in mechanical engineering.

“I joined in June and what we do is very nice,” he says.

They pray every morning and recite safety slogans before embarking on their training. They first watch videos for 30 minutes before making PowerPoint presentations.

Musyoka says the equipment is totally new, hence the need to follow training keenly.

Job Nderitu, a Kevian employee, did electrical engineering at Nyeri Technical Training Institute, now a polytechnic. He, too, is training.

Maina and her 10 colleagues have been successfully selected to do apprenticeships at Krones LCS Center East Africa Limited.

This is a subsidiary of Krones AG and is the support base and training centre for all of Krones' customers in East Africa.

The company is 65 years old and is in 16 countries in the region.

Having been active in the country since 1993, Krones has established that graduates churned out by Technical Training Institutions do not have practical skills. This is despite the fact that there were 59 approved TTIs in Kenya as at October 2015.

Out of an awareness of this need for more technically competent Kenyans, the German government has set aside 30 million euros for TIVET programmes. Negotiations are still going on.

The main component will be to upscale three main TTIs, up-scaling them to improve their facilities and their curriculum.

The programme will be implemented by the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ).

Krones East Africa MD Nicho Wolmarans says there are no vocational schools in Kenya like in Germany.

“We partnered together with the National Industrial Training Authority (Nita) in a public-private partnership project and started taking people from TTI with diploma and training them practically,” he says.

Wolmarans says the training takes about two years. Trainees earn practical skills in electronic, mechanical and automation fields.

Upon completion, they get double certification — from Nita, which covers electrical engineering, and from AHK, which is the German Chamber of Commerce — as mechatronic technicians.

“Already, five people have been employed in the apprenticeship programme, and five are serving as technicians for our machines here and four at Coca-Cola,” Wolmarans says. This is from the first group of nine apprentices.

Wolmarans says the training is competency-based training, whereby trainees get the skills they need for certain tasks. The practical skill is what is often missing, he says.

KEY TO ‘BIG FOUR’ PLAN

The three TTIs set for scale-up include Nairobi Technical Training Institute, Kiambu and Thika.

However, the land title for Thika Institute is at the bank because the board of trustees was not trustworthy. It took a loan on the land title of the institute. The financiers will not invest in the institute unless the title is with the institute.

Another barrier, Wolmarans says, is that somehow, the culture must change.

“The companies must understand the value they are getting out of people who are trained especially in this company for the equipment. They have general knowledge which takes three years if we partner,” he says.

Post says they are very proud of the programme.

“Within the first year of employment, two of these apprentices received awards at the end of the year for innovations and processes,” Post says, adding that the programme has value.

He says they cannot handle more people because of the size of their facility. However, there is an initiative to train more trainers as well as equip TTIs.

Krones and its partners have 90 people employed, out of which 40 are technicians who are “running around the region” attending to the needs of Krones clients.

Wolmarans says it builds loyalty when one starts early with people from high school, for them to understand that apprentices get salaries.

He says he is happy the apprentice programme is taking shape in Kenya, a move that is really good for the Big Four agenda. These are manufacturing, universal healthcare, affordable housing and food security.

“One pillar is manufacturing. We need people who know how to manufacture. We want to start by building companies first, or training people first. It is the story of chicken and egg,” Wolmarans says.

He says technicians who will contribute to the manufacturing need to be trained.

“To start the programme would probably take another year or two, but the programme itself will take three years, depending on how many people there are in different courses,” he says.

“We would not have 100,000 people per year. It starts slowly and probably with the experience made, it will be extended to different TTIs.”

Wolmarans says having enough technicians might take up to five years. Post agrees with him, saying Rome was not build in a day.

Maina wants girls out there to realise that the desires of their hearts are possible and that all dreams are valid.

“Everything is possible. There are no technical courses for men and for women. What a man can do, a woman does it better,” she says, adding that she is ready to work anywhere in the world.

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