Kenya has a massive skills gap: how it can fix the problem

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By Dr. Melba K. Wasunna
Kenya’s extractives sector – covering oil, gas and mining – is booming. There have been recent discoveries of commercially viable resources, like oil and gold. The sector’s contribution to the country’s gross domestic product currently stands at around 1%. But the government expects this to reach 10% by 2030. This suggests there’s still a great deal to be exploited.

To support the sector’s growth, the government recently approved a nationwide geophysical survey that will map the country’s minerals and natural resources. It also enacted a new Mining Act and put forward a new petroleum bill to provide new sector regulation.

But to realise the potential of these resources, more people with the right skills are needed. The number of skilled workers in Kenya’s labour market does not match the extractives sector’s current needs. Although the size of the skills gap in Kenya is unknown because detailed research hasn’t been done, industry sources have made it clear that they are struggling to fill posts. According to a report on Kenya’s petroleum sector, the extractives sector is still dominated by foreign expertise in technical, exploration and production skills.

In Turkana County for example, where most upstream petroleum operations are taking place, the high unemployment rate is linked to the mismatch between workforce skills and new employment opportunities. This challenge is most severe for vocational skills like pipe fitting, welding, drilling and operation and repair of heavy equipment – all in high demand in the energy and natural resource sectors.

If not addressed urgently, the skills gap could inflate the cost of labour because of an over-reliance on foreign experts and compromise energy and mining projects. Industry players need to collaborate and support on-the-job and need-based training.

Vocational skills
One major challenge to addressing the skills gap is the lack of quality vocational training. The skills needed in energy and mining sectors in Kenya are usually acquired through informal technical and vocational education and training institutions.

For example Kenya lacks skilled welders who can work on a live oil pipeline. Most polytechnics (higher education institutions with courses mostly in vocational or technical subjects) only offer artisan welding courses. The welding that is done in the petroleum sector is much more complex. This is a huge setback as Kenya hopes to begin crude oil exportation in 2019.

Kenya has more than 845 accredited technical and vocational education and training institutions, but the courses offered are not aligned with global standards.

There is also demand for workers with more general business skills, including information technology, accounting and project management, as well as geology and engineering skills.

Most universities in Kenya don’t focus enough on practical skills, and there’s a bias towards social sciences.

Because of this mismatch, even when there’s skilled labour, the skills aren’t the right ones, or are inadequate. Employers can’t rely on certificates from formal technical and vocational institutions as a guide to an individual’s actual competencies. Instead they have to verify new recruits’ competencies to determine how much additional on-the-job training is required.

Other challenges include outdated training curricula, inadequate facilities to cater for the large number of students who wish to undertake the vocational programmes and a low quality of teaching staff. This all has a negative impact on the quality of individuals being channelled into the labour market.

Way forward
Kenya’s situation isn’t unique on the continent. Other resource-rich countries like Ghana, Tanzania and Nigeria are also grappling with a skills gap in the extractives sector. In Ghana the mismatch is primarily caused by training curricula that are developed with no input from key industry players. Nigeria, meanwhile, faces a number of challenges including inadequate funding, teaching and learning facilities and poor governance.

In Kenya there is a way forward. It lies with developing more, specialised training centres. The Kenyan government has been collaborating with some private sector players to implement capacity building initiatives to support the oil and gas industry.

And some private companies like Base Titanium and Tullow Oil Kenya, considered leaders in Kenya’s mining and oil sectors, are taking the lead in professional skills development. This will ensure that curricula, training and standards match the sectors’ market and skills demand. And it will ease the transition from training to employment.

Some higher education institutions are also trying to plug the gap. Strathmore University’s Energy Research Centre, for example, has partnered with specialist centres to offer short courses like energy auditing and technical solar skills. Their approach rests on three pillars: enterprise development, skills development and matching graduates with potential employers. Similarly, Best Bridge College in Nairobi offers renewable energy training like solar installation.

But for these programmes to be successful, curricula must be modelled on global standards. The quality of teachers must also be improved and technical and vocational training institutions need to be equipped with modern tools and materials to ensure a shift from theoretical to practical teaching. – The Conversation Africa

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