A month will hardly go by without reading something in this newspaper about Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in Rwanda. There must be something to it.
This realisation struck home recently when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, in his May Day message, declared that he doesn’t want all his citizens to go to college.
The city-state, which remains a beacon of socio-economic aspiration for nations across the world, including Rwanda, boasts one of the most advanced economies. It also has one of the most educated population.
So, what is the problem? Too much education, it turns out.
An anecdote closer home may illustrate. Not too long ago, a compatriot of mine narrated how a relative of his was doing “very well” as a welder, unlike many priding in their white collar jobs.
My friend explained that when the young chap finished high school, woefully below grade for university admission, the family sat in court to decide what to do for the youngster who was clearly destined to be a failure in life.
One of the uncles, visiting the concerned family at the time, sought to offer a solution. He described a trend that was increasingly being witnessed across much of Africa.
The picture he painted was of the boom riding on infrastructural development as Africa’s economic fortunes rose.
But the picture had a blemish: It was increasingly becoming apparent that a range of low-tech know-how such as masonry and welding – skills that do not necessarily require a high level of education to master – were in dire short supply.
It seemed that every young person, the uncle said, sought to do the fancy IT (information technology), shunning “kazi ya mkono”.
In the meantime, the Chinese were gaining a foothold across the continent in infrastructural development. And, realising the local shortage of low-level skills started bringing with them their own handymen from China.
Then people began to notice. The Chinese suddenly began to appear “everywhere” doing all sorts of things, including, as a spillover effect, hawking and roasting maize for sale by the roadside, as dramatically seen in Nairobi (See “The Chinese hawker is assuredly coming”, The New Times, Sept. 6, 2012).
Amid the hue and cry of the Chinese taking over “everything”, their rising tide had to be stemmed with local talent.
And so, my friend’s uncle counseled: “Take the boy to a vocational college to learn masonry or something electrical. Even the village polytechnic will do.”
The rest, as my friend explained, is history. A few short years down the road the young man is “doing wonders in the village,” building rental houses to the envy of his better educated peers.
To come back to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, he wants a new scheme promoting vocational programmes and apprenticeships to help funnel Singaporeans into the workforce, and away from possibly pursuing full university study.
International media report that he recently imposed restrictions on immigration and a slowdown in the country’s economic growth have increased the need for more Singaporeans to take up jobs in the country’s factories, shipyards and service industries that keep the Southeast Asian island metropolis humming.
The problem of shortage of low-skilled labour the Singaporean prime minister laments is hardly new. Politicians and educational reformers across the world, even in the most developed countries, are arguing for a variation or other of TVET to stay competitive.
It is no different in our region or in Africa. However, in so far as Africa is concerned, the problem is a bit deeper as youth unemployment remains widespread.
Research shows that more than 50 per cent of the youthful population on the continent is illiterate. Many of them have little or no skills and are, therefore, largely excluded from productive economic and social life.
Vocational training is, therefore, providing a solution where the basic education system has failed.
Likewise, as evidence suggests, technical and vocational education and training is crucially “topping-up” the basic knowledge base young people need to help prepare them for the immediate needs of the world of work.
Topping up with TVET is how my friend’s kin became the village wonder.