Technical and vocational education has a vital role to play in Africa’s sustainable development

Gwamaka Kifukwe


Everyone appreciates a quality craftsmanship, whether it is artistic or functional – and yet, we do not encourage our youths to pursue opportunities and livelihoods that require technical and vocational education. This is severely curtailing the potential for technical and vocational education to contribute to Sustainable Development – and much of the problem lies in our own attitudes and thinking. Sometimes, sustainable development challenges can be tackled through simple (note, ‘simple’ does not mean ‘easy’) solutions; and the untapped potential of technical and vocational training is one such case.

It is a familiar story; we finish secondary school with As and Bs and a few lucky Cs will go on to University to pursue degrees. The rest of the class are ‘doomed’ to vocational and technical education. But why has this sentiment become the norm? We all have friends, family and colleagues who are naturally gifted in different things: Some people can create magic in the kitchen, others have a knack for fixing things, others still are good at D-I-Y around the house, all of which we appreciate. So why do we not encourage people with these skills to develop them to their full potential? From the outset we stigmatise and demotivate those with the passion and talents to work with their hands, in order to promote academic pursuits. Ill-preparation for the job market as a whole.

Education has become about getting a degree, in order to get a good job or ‘escaping’ to richer parts of the country, the continent, or the world. Increasingly we are encouraged to become ‘job creators’ instead of ‘job seekers’. The truth is, we do need job creators. But the truth is also that we need skilled individuals to do those jobs! As it is, African labour may be cheap in terms of wages, but the trade-off for the quality of our products and services, render our labour uncompetitive due to the skills shortages in our labour pool and other related issues.

A major cause of the skills gap is poor enrolment in technical and vocational education. In all the world, Sub-Saharan Africa ranks lowest in terms of the percentage of total secondary enrolment in technical and vocational education (hovering between 4% and 5%). By comparison, the richest countries in the world (OECD) average around 20%. And we all feel the consequences of this. For those of you out there who own cars, or at least have been involved in getting a car repaired, you will be aware of how difficult it is to find a reliable and trustworthy mechanic to fix whatever problem your car might have. Typically in Africa one must ask around with other friends if they know someone, or know someone who might know someone… Have you ever thought to ask how and where the mechanic was trained?

In Africa, the informal economy is the largest employer, and a source of the majority of vocational learning. By 2008 in Senegal, some 400,000 young people were entering informal apprenticeships annually, compared to 7,000 graduates from the formal vocational and technical education centres! And in Ghana, it was estimated that as much as 80% of skills development was taking place through the informal apprenticeship system. As these apprenticeships offer no certification or documentation, upon their completion young people are absorbed into the informal economy. This poses several risks and problems, a few of which are listed below:

  • Clients and consumers have no knowledge of the quality of product or service they are receiving or purchasing.
  • Training is not standardised so there is neither quality control, nor standard operating procedures.
  • Costs are random.
  • Those taking on apprentices are effectively training their competition and so have conflicting interests.
  • Apprentices have no proof of skills and so have difficulty in presenting credentials to clients, or to financial service providers in case they would like to start their own businesses.
  • Governments are losing revenue.
  • Job creators and investors are unable to source local skills because they are not able to identify individuals even where they exist.

And the situation is likely to get even more complicated… NEPAD estimates that by 2025, there will be 330 Million young Africans eligible to enter the labour market. Africa needs jobs, yes – but it also needs people qualified to fill those jobs. As the world’s attention focuses on Africa, we are witnessing a growth in the immigrant population, many of whom are finding meaningful employment and economic activity on the continent. The diversity is welcome, however it also points to three facts that we cannot ignore. There are jobs in Africa; Africans are not able to access these jobs; and, we must do something in order for Africans to be able to compete for these jobs.

The perception that vocational and technical education will lead to being a ‘job seeker’ is misleading. University degrees do not guarantee that you will be a job creator or your own boss. You are just as likely to work for someone else in following either education pathway. Furthermore, from a development perspective, as the African market grows in terms of population, better linkages and spending power, there are huge opportunities for intra-African exchange. Why can these products and services not be produced in Africa? Currently Africa is outsourcing the very jobs that countries like Vietnam, Korea and China are using as the engine of their economic growth. Processing goods for the African market can and should take place in Africa – where the raw materials are found in any case. As the intra-African linkages get better, the reality is that there are many more opportunities for skilled labour (through vocation and technical education) as a starting point.

So why do we stigmatise vocational and technical education and prevent youth from pursuing viable, dignified and (frankly) needed careers based on vocational skills? Why are we not encouraging more skills and vocation-oriented education in our secondary schools so we can identify, nurture and encourage those with talents that are not academic to provide vital contributions to our societies? If science and technology education is a priority, where will we source the lab technicians or the mechanics? We are appreciative of good quality technical service, indeed sometimes we are dependent on it (from fire alarms to construction work), and yet many parents would not encourage (indeed may actively discourage) pursuit of excellence in technical and vocational fields. Why?

Furthermore, there is nothing preventing us from complimenting vocational and technical education, with entrepreneurship skills development. When we train chefs in nutrition, flavour balancing, and so forth, why do we not also impart them with knowledge on how to start and/or run a restaurant thereby becoming a potential job creator in the process? Africa will need entrepreneurs who are able to develop solutions from within as much as it needs entrepreneurs who adapt technologies, processes and ideas to the African context. In this area, those with the skills and experience in an industry can play a critical role in ensuring innovation is suitable to the needs and conditions of our context.

So what can be done? First of all we need to break the perception that vocational and technical education is the pathway for ‘those who don’t do well at high school’, added to this we need to identify and nurture those talented in non-academic ways so that they can prosper and contribute to their societies and communities using the passions and skills they are blessed with. Secondary education must incorporate more practical classes to expose pupils to alternatives in terms of future careers and possibilities (both as employees and employers). Governments can work with informal traders and service providers by providing guidelines and certification, individuals that collaborate and meet quality standards may be fast-tracked into the formal economy where they then have access to financial products and services to expand their business – various incentive packages to encourage enrolment may also be considered. These are just some of the ideas that could be considered.

Fundamentally however the change needed, as is often the case in Africa, is our own attitudes and approaches (‘mind-set’ to use the current phrase of choice). It is we Africans who must move away from thinking of vocational and technical education as the result of poor academic performance; of worshipping some kind of intellectual elitism. We must de-stigmatise technical and vocational education in order to enable individuals with passion and talent that are not captured in the current essays and written exams. We must recognise and encourage individuals to pursue excellence and an attitude of life-long learning in whatever field we are passionate about or talented in. The university-educated are just as job-seeking as they are job-creating. The same is true for those of vocational and technical educational backgrounds.

Vocational and technical skills have an important role to play in Africa’s future, so we must take education for these skills seriously. There are, and will be, many opportunities for people in Africa to prosper by pursuing this if they so choose. Because at the end of the day, what is development, if not to enable people the freedom to pursue their aspirations and ambitions and contribute to society through public and private pursuits?

Dr. Gwamaka Kifukwe is the Programme Coordinator for the Sustainable Development Programme at UONGOZI Institute. He also hosts the Institute’s two flagship television interview programmes, ‘Meet the Leader‘ and ‘In Focus‘.  For more information, please contact us.

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