Developing nations must focus on STEM programmes

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DR RAJ GILL

Singapore is still mourning the death of its founding father and Prime Minister of 31 years, Lee Kuan Yew; a man who is known for spurring Singapore’s Economic miracle.

Dubbed the “Monaco of the East” Singapore grew from one of the poorest nations of the 70’s to perhaps one of the strongest economies of our time and perhaps this is the time to embrace some positive lessons from his leadership.

The success of Singapore can be attributed to the strong and almost autocratic and visionary leadership of Lee Kuan Yew who knew that in addition to a sound economic policy, a stable government free of corruption clear rule of law and efficient government structures were critical in ensuring sustained growth.

Singapore was not a resource rich country, however Lee understood the importance of empowering people and in defining his economic policy impressed on uncompromising standards of a universally accessible high quality public education system and in so doing rubber stamped people as Singapore’s single most important asset; this he complemented by offering opportunities to those who achieved the high standards. And this is the creating of a cohort of youth with very high expectations. Whereas this is positive, it may not necessarily be so in a country with an extremely high cost of living.

There are indeed sustainability lessons to learn from Lee Kuan Yew’s approaches and especially for Kenya whose eye today is on attaining a middleclass status by 2020 and who only last year attained a lower middle class status. Kenya was ranked the fifth largest economy in the region and is set to grow faster than many of its peers in the region. World Bank statics peg Kenya’s growth at 6pc in 2015, third after Philippines and China taking the lead.

A Human Capital study by PwC predicts that nowhere will the demand for skills be more than in developing countries because their growth is dependent on them changing their economic model to a focus manufacturing and value addition.

The shift in the human capital demands on these growing economies is clearly articulated in Manpower Group’s Talent Shortages Survey showing that skills shortage prevented 45pc employers in the Asia Pacific region filling vacancies. In India this number rose to 61pc of employers and in Brazil 68pc had difficulties attracting the right workforce.

In light of the above it is imperative that developing countries narrow this skills gap and develop people who can do jobs that require higher qualifications and especially those with technical skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

To sustain the current growth trajectory in Kenya, the quality of public education must not be compromised while producing employable human capital and in so doing unleash the forces of upward social mobility for all Kenyans. The government must have little tolerance for complacency at all levels. This will of course be in addition to efficient government structures and continuous fight against corruption.

In the thriving “Asian Tiger Economies” such China, Malaysia, India and Singapore Institutions focus on offering Science, Technology, Engineering and Math programmes (STEM), the program provides learning opportunities for students to acquire and apply their skills and knowledge in these areas and become employable. Governments must think of opening Ivy League Institutes of Technology and Innovation Centres whose quality of Alumni cannot be understated. The graduands of such programmes have since time immemorial attracted global appeal and are competitive in the global market place – doing a quick scan of blue chip company leadership will affirm this.

On these institutes – In India, The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT’s) are an example. There are similar institutions in Japan, Singapore, the USA and Germany. In fact in Singapore there is the German Singapore Institute and The Japanese Singapore Institute both contributed substantially to the manufacturing sector. This is where Malaysia got its manufacturing ideas from!

You may recall that Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 80’s depleted the manufacturing base in the UK favouring service and financial sectors. Subsequent governments have been working at reviving manufacturing and STEM provision is a key part of their revival strategy.

An important lesson to be learnt here is that unless you manufacture goods and add value by using your workforce, you will not become a part of the value adding chain. The service industries (example: the Banking & Financial Sector), they add value but can disappear overnight. Need we remind all about what happened after the last recession which had a catastrophic effect throughout the financial world where governments had to bail out the financial sector which was built on very weak foundations.

Singapore too is at the moment heavily reliant on the service sector that is perhaps writing on the wall! President Obama worked tirelessly to keep alive the automotive industry in the USA which has done well, but is not yet out of the woodwork, he too realizes the importance of setting up a sound manufacturing base.

Whilst Kenya ranks highest in the region in terms of adult literacy (87.4pc) and has the highest spend in education (about 20pc) and must be commended for those efforts, it is still struggling to fill the skills gap in an orderly manner and with the rapidly changing technology, skills training designed several years ago is obsolete today. Perhaps adopting a policy of uncompromising standards of universally accessible education may be a key trigger for sustainable growth. Indeed with such a policy, talent shortage can be turned into an opportunity, where Kenya becomes a factory of talent with the key raw product being the young vibrant youth who are hungry for professional advancement.

(The writer is the Chief Operating Officer of Edulink Consultants)

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