It is indisputable that education is a key cog in the wheel of economic growth.
Industries rely on graduates from institutions of learning to meet their manpower needs.
This is why any country serious about setting a firm foundation for economic take-off has to be concerned with the relevance and calibre of the skills that its education system churns out.
As a growing economy, Kenya’s education system has come into sharp focus as the country eyes industrial takeoff.
The situation does not inspire hope.
Yawning skill gaps, highest unemployment rate in the region and continuous growth in the number of graduates from higher education institutions are some of the most pressing challenges the country faces.
That East Africa’s biggest economy remains a major exporter of skilled labour to other parts of the world, allows more expatriates to carry out some of the mega infrastructure jobs and still holds the dubious distinction of being the country with the largest number of unemployed youth in the region, is a puzzle many find inconceivable.
Growth in enrolment
The 2017 Economic Survey show that Kenya’s university enrolment is expected to grow by 10.5 per cent to 564,500 in 2016/17 while that of Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) is expected to increase from 153,300 to 202,600 in the same period.
Interestingly, as enrolment in higher institutions of learning grows, there seems to be no major effort to address the spectre of skill gaps.
Given their level of education, graduates would be expected to create jobs if they cannot secure one.
But statistics indicate that many of the graduates are yearning for elusive jobs while very few have explored the path of self-employment.
Experts say this failure by graduates to tap the skills attained to create jobs is an indictment on the practicability of the training in colleges and universities. This state of affairs is worsening the unemployment rate.
In fact, Kenya’s rate of unemployment now stands three times compared with that of the neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania (17.3 per cent). It is also one of the highest in the world.
Last year the World Bank (WB) said nearly one in every five Kenyan youths of working age has no job compared to Uganda and Tanzania where about one in every 20 young people is jobless, underlining the gravity of unemployment in Kenya.
Experts agree that economic growth has not been fast enough to absorb the number of graduates being churned out.
However, another fundamental setback is that there is disconnect between the needs of the job market and the training offered in colleges and universities.
In its latest economic update on Kenya, the WB said the country continues to earn less from its investment in education as the skills are not incorporated into the economy for varied reasons.
“Labour costs in Kenya remain high relative to output in regional peers. While Kenya has invested in broadening access to education, the pay-off to educational investment has been low. Many educational assets sit idle because of mismatches, reinforcing the impression that Kenya is not making productive use of its available labour force,” WB wrote in the April report.
The global lender said until Kenya institutes mechanisms to help its human capital to access appropriate skills, technology and information through plans like technology extension or technology transfer programmes, the situation may persist.
Manufacturing, which is a key beneficiary of the country’s skilled labour force, is said to be worst hit by the skill mismatch as the country continues to churn out unfit graduates for the industry.
The situation has pushed manufacturers through their umbrella body, the Kenya Association of Manufacturers (KAM) to roll out a programme to impart job skills to graduates and create a pool from where they can be hired.
KAM chief executive Phyllis Wakiaga told the Smart Company that the industry has been grappling with unfit human capital with many graduates lacking practical know-how crucial in the sector immediately after they complete studies.
“The skills gap is still an issue of concern because the industry is not involved in curriculum design and research is not given so much prominence such that those who graduate cannot easily innovate and create jobs as well,” Ms Wakiaga said.
“That means we are left with the burden of retraining. KAM is doing just and we have 100 students from technical institutions in our programme who we train, supervise and enrol in a pool from where our members can hire them.”
She said an expansion of such programme would go a long way in sharpening practical skills for the graduates to boost their chances of being employed as well as being innovative to create jobs.
The situation of having many trained youth outside employment is a key impediment to the growth of the economy, which dipped to 4.7 per cent in the first quarter of 2017, since productivity is lowered effectively “denying the economy the demographic dividend from majority young population”.
Commission for University Education acting chief executive Professor Walter Oyawa, however, said there is need to reshape the mentality of graduate away from seeking permanent jobs as the world economy continues to experience one turmoil after another.
He said even where practical skills have been taught, graduates still become jobseekers instead of creators.
“We have made great steps in expanding access to education and while it is agreeable that we need to focus on the industry needs in our graduates, we must shift the focus from just using skills attained to secure permanent jobs to taking advantage of opportunities to be job creators,” Prof Oyawa said.
“The new curriculum, which is soon coming into place will address some of these challenges. We are in a journey towards getting tailored-skills for the dynamic industrial needs.”
Kenya has a working-age population of 25.5 million, or over half the country’s population, and the number is projected to swell to 39.2 million in the next 14 years when the country hopes to have transformed into an industrialised middle-income economy.
While the employment situation at home remains tough for trained graduates, the number of those migrating abroad and securing gainful employment introduces a new twist to the debate.
Since the 1960s, thousands of Kenyans have left for greener pastures with more than three million Kenyans living abroad today, according to official data. Some of these are the best brains that would have benefited the country immensely.
In 2015, about 455,889 Kenyans migrated abroad and more than 75 per cent went to developed countries especially the UK (33 per cent), the US (23 per cent), Canada (6 per cent), Australia (4 per cent), and Germany (2 per cent).
The migration of trained Kenyans overseas does not auger well for the local growing economy which needs a variety of skills to sustain the growth momentum.
Brain drain has for years remain at the centre of the debate on what ails developing countries such as Kenya.