New lease of life for Kenya’s vocational institutions

Private firms and foreign agencies are breathing new life into Kenya’s technical and vocational training sector as the government seeks new initiatives to revive the troubled institutions to secure the critical skills set needed to drive the country’s industrialisation ambitions.

Over the past few months, a number of private organisations, foreign agencies and the Kenyan government have announced plans to spend billions of dollars on the previously neglected Technical and Vocational Education and Training, or TVET, sector.

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta recently announced a rapid expansion plan for technical colleges. He said 70 new colleges in different stages of completion, once commissioned, would accommodate 100,000 more students. The government's plan is to have at least 50,000 learners in TVET institutions in the next five years. This year alone, the government has allocated US$5million towards tuition fees for students joining the technical colleges, he said.

The government plans to elevate some technical institutions to national polytechnic status. Each of Kenya's eight provinces will have a national polytechnic, said officials at the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology. The government will also replace two former polytechnics – Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi and Mombasa Polytechnic – that were recently upgraded to university colleges, leaving a hole in the sub-sector's training capacity.

The Ministry of Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs runs at least 750 youth polytechnics – grassroots vocational training schools – and is also reviving these centres, most of which have become run down and unable to offer adequate services.

Private entities

Private organisations have come in to uplift the sector. They reckon that for Kenya to become industrialised by 2030, it must strengthen the technical and vocational education and training system, eroded by low investment. Currently, the country is fighting a skills shortage that could hinder the smooth implementation of Kenya Vision 2030, the country's long-term economic blueprint which is founded on a strong human capital base.

Kenya’s biggest bank by assets and profitability, KCB Group, recently commissioned the 2017 cohort of its '2Jiajiri' programme, a youth-focused project that is enrolling 10,000 youths annually into technical and vocational training institutions. The bank aims to train at least 50,000 youths in the next five years and finance them to start their own enterprises, creating at least one million direct and indirect jobs. The bank is spending US$100 million annually on financing youth-led businesses under the programme.

It is estimated that at least 78% of university students in Kenya are pursuing arts-related courses while government statistics show that Kenya’s grand development projects require 30,000 technologists, 90,000 technicians, and at least 40,000 craftsmen. Currently, the country is producing only a quarter of these annually.

Equity Bank, Kenya’s second biggest bank by assets, announced recently that it will be sponsoring at least 3,000 students to join technical and vocational colleges across the country. The bank, through its social responsibility arm, the Equity Group Foundation, has partnered with the German government-owned development bank KfW under the Wings to Fly programme that will see some of the students enrol for three-month certificate courses and others for full diploma studies in TVET institutions countrywide.

“Given the high rates of youth unemployment, skills-based training offers the fastest way to secure jobs and to advance in a technical skills-based career path,” said James Mwangi, Equity Bank’s Group CEO and managing director.

At least 400,000 students who sat the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exams in 2016 but did not score the C+ university entry grade are expected to join the technical colleges.

Foreign input

Late last year, Germany announced it would spend at least US$30 million on technical colleges in Kenya, to help in developing a critical mass of skills in areas such as masonry, plumbing and mechanics to ease youth unemployment. The money, said German Ambassador to Kenya Jutta Frasch, will be used to equip the training units with state-of-the-art facilities.

Kenya has more than 60 public and private TVET institutions which offer certificate and diploma courses in disciplines such as building and construction, carpentry and joinery, engineering, textile-based programmes, catering, hospitality, ICT and business studies.

Technical institutions have in the past few years also come under threat as universities sought expansion avenues to resolve an admission crisis plaguing higher education. This has seen universities collaborate with technical institutions and change the programmes they offer. The government has since banned the upgrading of technical institutions into university colleges, arguing that the trend was killing the sector.

“For a long time, Kenya has, more or less, neglected its technical and vocational education and training institutions. That neglect has been most visible in the zeal with which we have turned many of the technical colleges into universities,” said the Business Daily, Kenya’s premier business paper, in an editorial last week.

“The country is making a U-turn to use technical skills in creating jobs, instead of producing an army of graduates, who are queuing for non-existent white collar jobs. TVET institutions should from now be taken as the ‘first choice’ among parents, guardians and potential students.”

By upgrading some technical colleges to national polytechnics and developing youth polytechnics, the government hopes to improve access to training among youth, improving their chances of securing jobs. Youth polytechnics started as low-cost, post-primary training centres in rural areas in the 1960s to help stem the problem of low enrolment in secondary schools.

They specialise in courses such as carpentry, accounts, welding, mechanics, catering and teaching and have been Kenya's most important institutions providing vocational skills. The government wants youth polytechnics to upgrade and offer training in electrical technologies, construction, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, food processing, information and communications technology, and leather technology.

Last week, Kenya’s Vocational and Technical Training Principal Secretary Dinah Mwinzi said the government has lined up billions of shillings to support the sector.

Elaborate strategies

“We have elaborate strategies to ensure that TVET is embraced across the country. We will train more than 570 TVET trainers in the current financial year,” Mwinzi said. “We are committed to changing the lingering stigma of TVET, which is common in the minds of parents and students, to be institutions of first choice, not just places to go if one is rejected or unable to afford university education.”

Phyllis Wakiaga, chief executive officer of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers, said Kenya’s companies need to be involved in the planning and design of TVET programmes to include a global perspective of manufacturing trends and in line with the needs of the country.

“Investing in TVETs is not just about providing a few opportunities for some; they are the only sure way to secure the future of this country, guaranteeing long-term productivity and inclusive growth,” said Wakiaga.

Youth unemployment has been rising and the accompanying serious social problems of increased crime and dependency present a major challenge to Kenya's coalition government. Young people form 60% of the population and they have for decades been at the periphery of major national economic and development initiatives.

“Experience in technically successful countries has shown that an effective national technical and vocational skills development programme requires a strong symbiotic partnership between government agencies, academia and sector industries,” said George Wachira who consults on capacity building and other issues in the energy industry in Kenya.

“We also need to align the structure of technical training curricula into a modular format that can allow progression from technical diplomas to technical degrees (BTech). This happens in Germany,” he said.