Vocational, technical education indispensable for Rwanda’s development

When I was called to sign a full-time employment contract with the newly created Rwanda Workforce Development Authority (WDA) sometime mid this year, I labored to subdue the journalism spirit that had increasingly become irresistible in me over the past ten years of my engagement with the media. 

When I was called to sign a full-time employment contract with the newly created Rwanda Workforce Development Authority (WDA) sometime mid this year, I labored to subdue the journalism spirit that had increasingly become irresistible in me over the past ten years of my engagement with the media. 

For two weeks, I thought much about the profession I had fallen in love with way back in 1998 when I had my very first article published in The New Times. At that time I was in my Senior Three.

I thought I was letting down not only my fellow journalists, but also the general public to whom we are all accountable.

However, as a Marketing graduate I felt having both Marketing and Communication under my attributions at WDA was a mouthwatering carrier combination, I could not let slip through my hands. And so I gave it a shot.

Nonetheless I never thought I would enjoy my new job as I did at TNT (The New Times).

Surprisingly though, barely three months down the line, I am very proud and satisfied with what I am currently doing, more or less, in the same proportions as when I was still at TNT.

Why? so you may ask. The answer is simple: the nature WDA’s mission. Not only the institution is new, but also the mandate for which it was created is a new concept in Rwanda.

But it is a mission that, if well implemented, can turn around the fortunes of our country.  The responsibility to regulate, coordinate and supervise technical and vocational training in an integrated system is the heartbeat of WDA’s mandate.

In my hitherto short period at the Remera-based Authority, I have learned and changed a lot. When I joined WDA – formerly RWoDA – I thought I was just joining another institution. I must confess that never before have I known the breadth and width of vocational training and technical education as I do at the moment.

That’s why I felt compelled to share with you a brief insight into this concept of integrated TVET system.

For starters, WDA is an autonomous public institution whose mandate is to empower Rwandans with hands-on practical skills through what is known as integrated Technical and Vocational Training and Education (TVET).

It is the same system that served as the backbone of several emerging economies such as Singapore and South Korea, as well as many other developed nations.

Thanks to the historical background of vocational and technical education in this country, very few people understand the meaning of an integrated TVET.

Simply put, an integrated TVET is an open-ended system that fully integrates vocational training with technical education, while at the same time it creates a strategic intersection of both systems with the formal education system.

Under the current system, a graduate in a vocational training school sees no light at the end of the tunnel, and the perception of the general public is that vocational training is meant for under-achievers or failures altogether.

And this has been compounded by the fact that a vocational trainee can hardly get chance to upgrade to a higher education level.

Secondly, a technical school graduate stands very little chances of joining a university. In effect, such a state of affairs has not encouraged many youths/students to join vocational and technical schools as a matter of choice, but only out of despair.

No policy, home
Amid all this, no policy that has been in place to regulate vocational training. No clear coordination framework; no standards in place and therefore no common certification system.

Vocational training programmes never had a permanent home. They were regularly moved back and forth between several ministries, and seemed to be a forgotten sector all together.

Interestingly, these are the programmes that equip trainees with real practical skills, contrary to the conventional education system.

So, why the mentality of simply accumulating papers, other than skills? 

Why do we continue to have foreigners dominating in almost every skill area, from automobile-servicing, construction, hairdressing, carpentry, to tourism and hospitality?

Why should our graduates in Electronics fail to trouble-shoot a small technical problem on their mobile phones whose parts they thoroughly studied at campus? 

Experience both in Rwanda and in other countries show that graduates of a formal education system who have no prior practical skills often become under-productive when they join the job market.

This largely explains why most employers insist on job experience than accumulated certificates.

Where as in a vocational training centre, courses are exclusively practical and while it is a mixture of both hands-on and theoretical classes in technical schools, our universities are teach nothing but theory.

Because of some of the aforementioned weaknesses, even the existing technical and vocational schools in Rwanda never helped address the challenges of skills gap, a major finding of an independent evaluation of the Poverty Reduction and Strategy Paper (PRSP).

The evaluation showed that whereas the country had wonderful development programmes, it lacked implementers.

We must change
It is against that backdrop that in search of a viable solution to skills challenges facing the country in its bid to implement development strategies under EDPRS and Vision 2020, the Cabinet in May, 2007, appointed a three-member taskforce to help lay the ground work for the establishment of WDA.

That was and remains the cardinal mission the team composed of Mr Charles Karake (chairman), Ms Fatina Mukarubibi and Mr Johnson Rutayisire.

They did their assignment rather expeditiously, resulting in the official establishment of RWoDA – which a month ago was converted into WDA – in January, this year.

But the Taskforce, the current WDA Director General Singaporean-born Chong Fook Yen, and all those pushing for this badly-needed revolution face a daunting task ahead. Rwandans are generally conservative people, with conservative minds.

No doubt, few will be keen to embrace this new system; many will continue to opt for degrees after degrees, and tend to look down upon vocational training and technical education – at least in the near future.

But ultimately, as the State Minister for Primary and Secondary Education, Theoneste Mutsindashyaka, observed recently, the success of our country’s development aspirations lies in TVET, a system that leaves no one out, that is horizontally and vertically integrated. We must change our mindset.

The author is the WDA Marketing & Communication Specialist

Email: james@rwoda.gov.rw