The skills gap: How we define successful careers

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BY PHYLLIS WAKIAGA

Many people blame the ever-increasing youth unemployment problem on the ‘quality’ of education. However, it is my opinion that as a society, that the manner in which we have historically defined gainful employment, has had serious repercussions on the value, quality and status we place on the type of education that shape our careers.

It would seem that somewhere along the way, a hierarchy was created within the education system that valued some career path over others, and pushing our youth to a very restricted and narrow definition of a ‘successful career’. This Hierarchy came with connotations of underachievement and stigmatization around certain jobs and implied success and higher intellectual capacity around others. Perhaps then, it is right to say that the issue of unemployment may largely be a result of social constructs as much as political and economic circumstances.

According to the Kenya Bureau of statistics the youth (15-34 year olds), who form 35 percent of the Kenyan population, have the highest unemployment rate of 67pc. Every beginning of the year Kenyan parents are fraught with anxiety over the results of either KCPE or KSCE, because as a society we have used these to determine the careers of our children.

The use of the word determine is intentional as we have yet to use the results from these examinations to provide a wide-range of options for the youth. So what happens when the results are not as expected by the guardians and parents? What happens when not getting an A means that your dream for the child has come crashing down? We now begin to turn to ‘other’ options that we can introduce for their consideration. Choices that, in the first place, were not primary except now that the expected outcome was not achieved.

On many occasions the ‘other’ option is usually the Technical, Vocational, Education and Training (TVET) centres. It is indeed of great concern that the perception long held in many societies is that jobs from TVETs are not as lucrative as those referred to as ‘White Collar’ jobs. To make matters worse, corporations and industries have done little to change this perception owing to their rigid job definitions and more importantly the compensations awarded to these roles.

Over one million young people enter into the labour market annually some with formal education and some without. Kenya’s unemployment rate continues to soar whilst at the same time employers decry a lack of skills and the ever-increasing costs of importing labour for fields like mechanical and electrical engineering, manufacturing, oil and gas among others. There’s a gap, and it can be exploited to realize our Social Development Goals as a country.

This gap is not unique to Kenya. In their publication, The Skills Gap in US Manufacturing, Audit firm Deloitte stated that nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely need to be filled in the US from 2015 to 2025, however the existing skills gap will result to approximately 2 million unfilled positions. China has also been reported to have struggling industries today due to a deficiency in skilled workforce.

Similarly in Kenya, it is all well and good to envision achieving economic stability through industrialization, but who will take over these jobs? Where is the skilled workforce to catapult us towards realizing a globally competitive business environment? There’s a critical need to address the narrow definitions of successful careers as a society. We must look at how we define education and its purpose in building our nation. Meaning that in everything we do we must look at whether the curriculum will suffice to attend to matters of developing our country.

As private sector, let us review our compensation structure and keep in mind the implied meanings in wages and job descriptions. We must look at ways in which we can expand the traditional definitions to capture the needs of the industry in terms of skill and innovation. Private sector and educational institutions must develop collaborative ways of working together to anticipate and align to present and future human resource needs take our country to the next level of industrialization.

The government should also pay close attention to promoting STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education as a vital function of innovation and industrialization. We must invest in continually updating our knowledge of modern manufacturing jobs and strengthen research in this area.

We have the answers to a sustainable future in our youthful population. Let us look at the ways in which we produce knowledge and beware not to stifle their creativity and innovation. More importantly, let allow them to define their own success by breaking down the hierarchies and false values tied to their choice of career.

(The writer is the CEO of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and can be reached on [email protected])

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