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February 23, 2019

ALEX AWITI: Low-skilled grads fall short on job

Youths in a painting course who graduated from technical skills enhancement programme offered by kiambu county government department of youth.
Youths in a painting course who graduated from technical skills enhancement programme offered by kiambu county government department of youth.

Talking with employers, one gets the impression that skills production has not kept pace with the changing workplace needs. My sense is that skills shortage among youth entering the workplace could touch off a profound social, economic and political crisis for our country.

Industry, educators and government are all very long on what they are doing to address the skills questions. However, it is hard to see how these disparate efforts will come together, and urgently so, to equip the youth with the skills they need to enter and become productive workers.

Employers are unequivocal about what they regard as low-skilled youth who are ill-prepared to enter the workforce. A common criticism, especially among employers across technical and non-technical sectors, is that the education or training youth receive is perhaps irrelevant to modern workplace needs. This is especially true for craftsmen, technicians and engineers.

Employers, and in particular those who are in practice and professional sectors, are equally frustrated by the fact that the ranks of trainers or professors engaged in skills production have little or no practical experience. For example, building and construction instructors have no experience working in or managing a construction project.

But employers are not just fixated on technical or hard skills. They also care about other types of skills, commonly referred to as soft skills. This is especially true because today every business, from education to animal health, understands that they are primarily in the customer-service business.

Hence, it is imperative that all employees, especially frontline staff, are prepared and empowered to deliver a memorable customer experience. So increasingly, employers seek to hire individuals who can: Communicate effectively in a business environment; work in teams; manage time and prioritise tasks.

But there is general consensus that those seeking to get into the workforce lack critical soft skills for today’s customer-service business environment. The youth getting into the workplace say their training programmes are big on industry or occupation-specific skills. Moreover, the culture built through high-stakes standardised exams diminishes the value of team work and amplifies competition.

Despite reforms in education and new investments in vocational and technical training, confidence in the ability of tertiary education to address the skills gap is underwhelming. Employers, students and trainers believe that curriculum and instructional models are not responsive to workplace needs.

Moreover, employers are not impressed by their own ability to address the skills challenge. There is consensus among employers and employees that the workplace does not support employee career development. Investment from private sector in workforce development is largely considered inadequate.

Industry and training institutions must forge a new partnership, which integrates work and training, beyond short stints of unstructured internships. Where appropriate, industry and tertiary institutions should co-design academic programmes that integrate paid work terms into tertiary education programmes.

The current skills gap is perhaps the biggest threat to delivering on President Uhuru Kenyatta’s Big Four agenda.

We could learn from Canada’s co-operative education programmes and the paid-internship programme Prof Olive Mugenda started at Kenyatta University.

Alex O. Awiti is Vice Provost & director of East Africa Institute at Aga Khan University

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