•Wangari’s path is not new. It’s the beaten path taken by most girls as parents protect them from challenges such as teenage pregnancies, but also prepare them to be homemakers.
•Such skills are best learned interactively through real-life experiences, many of which most girls miss.
As Mary Wangari navigated through her teen-age in primary and secondary schools, her world grew narrower. She enjoyed some freedom while attending primary school, but in adolescence was expected to remain at home, and devote herself to cooking, cleaning, and raising her younger siblings.
On the contrary, she saw the worldview of her younger brother widen in his teen age. Now considered a ‘man’, he could attend football matches far away from home, participate in many social events and return home late.
Wangari’s path is not new. It’s the beaten path that most Kenyan girls follow as parents protect them from challenges such as teenage pregnancies, but also prepare them to be homemakers.
As a result, Wangari missed the chance to fortify vital non-technical skills that go beyond the classroom. They include aspects like communication, critical thinking, teamwork, and resilience — soft skills that are the building blocks of success, both in education and the workplace.
Such skills are best learned interactively through real-life experiences, many of which most girls miss.
Employers often prioritise these skills when hiring because they recognise that technical expertise alone isn’t enough.
Thus although many girls and women in Kenya have the right papers, they find it difficult to transition from school to employment.
In October 2022, Wangari took part in a training conducted by the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP) at the Kabete National Polytechnic where she studied for a diploma in Information Technology.
The training provided soft-skills training, information and motivation to youth aiming to enter the labour market. The soft-skills training module was designed considering young women’s unique interests, preferences, and constraints. There were ten episodes of course content aimed at enhancing women's ability to make strategic life choices.
“Definitely the training came in handy when I began applying for internships and jobs this year (2023),” said Wangari. She negotiated a six-month contract at a media company in Nairobi, where she’s supporting the networking systems. This is a male-dominated field.
The training took place in several vocational institutions, including Kabete National Polytechnic, Nairobi Technical Training Institute, P.C. Kinyanjui Technical training Institute, and Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology.
“The traditional technical and vocational education and training curriculum concentrates on technical skills. However, there is a big gap in acquiring soft skills, yet, these are very important for young people when they are looking for jobs or even for those opting for self-employment after graduation. This is even more true for young women who face unique barriers,” said Glory Mutungi, the Chief Principal at the Nairobi Technical Training Institute.
The entire project, conducted by researchers from the Partnership for Economic Policy (PEP, www.pep-net.org), is also studying how gender-sensitive skills training can improve the chances of women finding work after graduation.
It is funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), as part of their Growth and Economic Opportunities for Women (GrOW) – East Africa initiative.
The initiative involved researchers from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and the University of Nairobi.
It relies on, among others, a baseline survey from the International Labour Organization showing that at 15 per cent, the unemployment rate among young females was two percentage points higher than that of young males in 2021.
Evidence from ILO School to Work Transition surveys shows that factors contributing to young women facing protracted difficulties in transitioning to working life include gender-based employment segregation and social and cultural norms that discourage or prevent women from pursuing education or working in certain types of jobs.
Dr Laura Barasa, a lecturer at the department of economics and development studies at the University of Nairobi, said the study tests innovative gender-sensitive training as a solution.
“We carried out the baseline survey in September 2022, and implemented the soft skills training in October 2022. We have now conducted a midline survey in May 2023 and have scheduled the endline survey for October 2023,” she said.
Dr Barasa noted while the traditional curriculum addresses important gaps in technical skills, soft-skills training, such as non-cognitive or socio-emotional skills, are typically ignored.
The PEP-led study involved 3,800 students in public technical and vocational education
and training institutions, where one-half of the students, including both males and females, received
gender-sensitive skills training over a period of ten weeks. The training imparted soft skills in terms of
socio-emotional skills that improve the ability to navigate interpersonal and social situations effectively, thus supporting the transition from school to work.
Dr Barasa said the TVET institutions expressed interest in more of PEP’s soft skills training. The institutions used to deliver hard skills training and wanted to complement it with soft skills training rather than creating a new entire course.
“The institutions allowed time for students and trainers to participate in the process. Furthermore, the institutions are enthusiastic about supporting the process of scale-up by engaging with the TVET Authority (TVETA) if the project has desirable outcomes,” she said.
The success outcomes of the gender-sensitive skills training will be based on improvements in graduates’ employment and women’s empowerment. This will enable the project to provide scalable recommendations for addressing supply and demand side barriers young women face in the labour market.