By Jane Mwangi.
The observation, for only the third time in history, of the World Youth Day marked an important milestone for humanity today.
In Kenya, as in many other countries around the world, success for young people is often defined through the well-worn path of pursuing good academic grades so that they can earn a university degree and eventually secure a well-paying white-collar job.
We may be programming our youth to study hard at subjects they don’t like, so that they can get a job they hate, so that they can join the ‘middle class’ and afford things they do not need. Those young people that deviate from this path are subsequently marked as “failures” and “punished” through relegation to technical [Kazi ya Mkono] vocations such as domestic services, tailoring, carpentry, masonry, mechanics, and “worst of all”; farming.
But this is an illusion, far removed from the truth.
The world is beginning to experience the negative effects of neglecting technical education and snubbing skilled labour especially available from young people. This oversight has triggered significant demand for skilled workers in developed countries to the extent that significant labour migration has been observed.
The irony is that this demand for skilled youth is happening in a context where young people are three times more likely to be unemployed compared to adults according to UN findings. They are also exposed to the lowest quality jobs, experience the greatest inequality in the labour market and suffer a longer and more insecure transition from education to employment. The most visible reason for youth unemployment is structural unemployment. This is where there is a mismatch between the skills in our youth and the needs of employers. Available data confirms our worst fears. The International Labour Organization reports that global youth unemployment reached 13.1% in 2016 and is expected remain at that level in 2017, up from 12.9% in 2015. Within the Kenyan context, a 2016 survey titled Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development: Repositioning Higher Education in Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, concluded that it takes an average of 5 years for a young person to secure stable employment. It further found that young people aged between 15 and 34 years experienced the highest levels of unemployment at 67%.
Kenya has caught on to the significance of this lapse. The government has embarked on an aggressive policy to popularize and improve on technical training standards in the country. In 2014, the state committed to establish or improve existing technical training colleges in each of the 290 constituencies. In 2017, the government invested over KES 2.5 Billion in order to begin training of the 30,000 technologists, 90,000 technicians, and over 400,000 craftsmen that the country needs if it is to implement megaprojects under Vision 2030.
The private sector has also elected to support the efforts of the government to ensure that our young people have the skills relevant to our labour market. The KCB Foundation for instance, has taken the role of becoming a leading catalyst in creating sustainable jobs and enterprises for our youth particularly in the informal sector. Under the flagship program 2jiajiri, the foundation aims to transform and equip unemployed and out-of-school youth from job seekers to job creators. The foundation is supporting young men and women alike to acquire both the technical and enterprise management skills needed to establish and grow their own micro enterprises.
Beyond setting up our young people for future success as employers in their own right, the KCB Foundation has gone the extra mile to forge partnerships with institutions in the public sector and companies in the private sector that will serve as the consumers of the services and commodities produced by our youth. In short, the foundation took on the evolutionary responsibility of creating a balanced ecosystem that addressed aspects of the demand and supply of skilled labour. The young people trained by the foundation are already making steps towards becoming the next generation of employers. Already, some of the star beneficiaries have established businesses that have begun employing other young people.
It is time we ramped up efforts to make technical jobs ‘cool’ and restore the dignity of working with one’s hands especially within the agricultural sector. One of the most effective ways to do this is to establish an unbreakable link between technical skills and economic freedom. In other works, let us inspire our young people to liberate themselves from poverty instead of waiting for an employer to do it for them.
We also need to encourage the development of ‘soft skills’ within the generation of the future. Our universities and colleges need to encourage entrepreneurship even in the liberal arts, so that our nation churns out painters, sculptors, actors, musicians, poets and writers in addition to electricians, plumbers and roofers. Drawing from Confucian wisdom, we aspire for a situation where if our young people are skilled in a job they love, they will never have to work a day in their lives.
Ms. Mwangi is the Executive Director, KCB Foundation