I have a cousin who earned a Diploma in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Systems Maintenance from the Kenya Polytechnic (now Technical University of Kenya) in 2012. He’s barely in the country. He’s usually in Nairobi this week, Rwanda the next, and South Sudan the week after. He literally decides which jobs to take and which ones not to. I also have a friend who graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from the Technical University of Mombasa (formerly known as Mombasa Polytechnic) in 2015 who has been looking for a job for the past two years. This month, he was lucky to get a job with Equity Bank as a Teller.
Sounds ridiculous right? How does a Diploma holder get a job immediately while a degree holder spends three years looking for a job and finally settles on a profession completely unrelated to what he studied in school? Let me tell you why. While the former was taught practical skills in a Technical Training Institute, the latter spent a significant portion of his five years in University running from one lecture theatre to another learning theory of knowledge. No firm is willing to employ him because they’ll have to spend a lot of time and money re-training him on practical industry skills.
While the former is highly-skilled, the latter is highly-educated. That is the problem we have in this country. We have a workforce that is highly educated but lacks in practical skills. This is why the Chinese are building our roads, bridges, and railway lines while we have Engineers in this country.
The gravest mistake that the Kibaki Administration committed in the quest to improve access to higher education was to upgrade all Technical Training Institutes, Polytechnics, and mid-level colleges to University status. In the rush to give these institutions Charters, they forgot to address two important questions: whether these institutions had the capacity to meet the skills needs of the future workforce it intended to train and whether the workforce they churned out would have the competency required to compete internationally.
One of the profound issues that Africa has to address –and address fast- is how to move from Third to First World. In order to make this transition, Africa has to emulate what is referred to as the “Asian Miracle” in global economics. Unlike Africa, countries like Taiwan and South Korea had no mineral wealth. How were they able to change their economic trajectories to the extent of even overtaking some First World countries? They focused on rapid technology-intensive economic development. They created national systems of innovation by copying technologies from First World economies. Most importantly, they invested in highly-skilled and not highly-educated human capital.
What is my point? Highly-skilled is more important than highly-educated in modern societies. Returns to education with regards to economic outcomes in a country are determined not by the number of University graduates but by the skill levels of the workforce. This is quite difficult to swallow, Right? To put this into perspective, let us take a look at Europe during the 18th Century Industrial Revolution. As late as 1850, Primary School Enrolment in Britain was as low as 11%. In a nutshell, only 11% of children born in Britain in the 18th century enrolled in Primary School. The remaining 89% did not. In contrast, Scandinavia had achieved full literacy by the turn of the 19th century. If there was a relationship between a highly-educated population and the rate of industrialization, Scandinavian countries should have industrialized faster. However, Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution while Scandinavia lagged behind in terms of economic development for a very long time.
Why did this happen? While school enrolment was low in Britain, something else was happening –apprenticeship and craftsmanship. Apprenticeship was a system in Britain where Children between the ages of 12 and 15 would be sent to a craftsman who specialised in whatever it is they wanted to learn. The apprentices would then work under the master until they were 21. The apprenticeship system was so important in Britain that in 1653, the nation passed the Statute of Apprentices which made it illegal for anyone to practise a trade without having served under a master for a period of not less than seven years.
This is the primary reason why Britain was the technological leader in the world during the Industrial Revolution. It had a workforce which –though lacking in formal education- possessed the training and natural dexterity to come up with the ideas which economically revolutionised the world in the 18th century.
If this country –and by extension Africa- wants to industrialize and move from an Agrarian economy to become an Industrial giant- we have to rethink our education system. This country should stop its fixation with higher education and implement policies geared towards the enhancement of skills in the education system so that we can foster effective participation in the international labour market. It is time for us to revive our Technical Training Institutes and Mid-Level colleges so that we can provide comprehensive skills training for the workforce of the future. Otherwise, we will continue having people with Doctorates in Engineering who cannot design our roads.
Authored by Innocent Ngare.