Why education reforms must begin, end with talent creation

As the race for talent hots up, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are lagging behind and Kenya is not an exception, according to the Global Talent Competitiveness Index 2017.

In a ranking order spearheaded by Switzerland, Singapore, Britain, the US and Sweden, Kenya is on position 97 out of 118 countries. It lags behind Mauritius (46), the best ranked country in Africa, Botswana (63), South Africa (67), Namibia (76), Zambia (89) and Rwanda (91). It is ahead of Senegal (100), Ghana (102), Uganda (106), Ethiopia (110) Tanzania (114) and Madagascar (118).

The ranking index developed by INSEAD, the prestigious French business school, in collaboration with Singapore’s Human Capital Leadership Institute was anchored on how countries develop and retain talent at home and whether they attract highly-skilled persons outside their borders without spending their resources.

According to Paul Evans, a professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, routine jobs are disappearing fast as advance of new technologies is disrupting the traditional nature of work.

Free agents

“Propelled by cost reduction and innovation, technology is changing many aspects of work, allowing people with specialised skills to deliver on tasks without the umbrella and constraints of a physical workplace or employment contracts,” says Evans, also the academic director of the INSEAD’s report.

In a nutshell, this means the factory model of salaried employees working for corporations or public organisations is being chipped away rapidly.

In one of its key recommendations, the report urges countries at the back foot of the new job and work dispensation to think beyond automation and focus on innovations, new skills and attitudes based on flexibility in the job market. “This is already happening in countries ranked high in growing, retaining and attracting talent,” says Su-Yen Wong, the CEO of the Human Capital Leadership Institute.

According to Wong, more than 30 per cent of workers in the US, Singapore and the European Union (EU) are free agents. Here, the idea of job for life no longer exists. “Multi-career is the norm for the new nature of work,” says Wong. Nonetheless, technology in form of robotics and the overall artificial intelligence will not ostensibly kill work but stimulate growth and create new jobs.

According to Evans, artificial intelligence and big data are already reaching a take-off threshold in developed countries and will soon disrupt economies rooted in 20th century industrial models. Assuming that INSEAD’s forecast is correct -- there are no indicators to the contrary -- countries in Sub-Saharan Africa as elsewhere in the world should prepare skills for the new global economy. No doubt the shift will have profound implications on education policies and curriculum.

Unfortunately, most countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Kenya in particular are still fixated on the idea of preparing people for 40 to 60 years of working life, with nearly 20 years of upfront education, even when they are preparing for life-long careers as machinists, inventory and payroll clerks, data processors, library assistants, bank-tellers, sales clerks, fast food workers, telemarketers and many other jobs. What the GTCI is questioning is whether a four year university degree is necessary for some occupations.

“For instance specialisation in, say, data analytics, graphic design, or telemarketing is perhaps the easiest element; it can be acquired at different stages in life, through vocational training and short diploma courses,” says the report.

According to James Heckman, a professor of economics at the Centre for Economics of Human Development, University of Chicago, future success lies in the ability to navigate spiral careers through lifelong education but not unitary and permanent lifelong routine jobs. The report suggests urgent need for developing countries, especially those whose education systems produce routine workers, to start thinking on how to close the gaps between education and technology.

The crux of the matter is that the prevailing educational model of producing people with the technical and vocational skills for manufacturing and sales positions, with a smaller number of highly skilled professional specialists graduating from universities to staff professional, managerial, and leadership positions is rapidly becoming obsolete.

Providing the road-map towards the direction in which the global economies are turning, the report quotes the Singaporean experience whereby cleaning jobs in hotels have been taken over by machines.

“Singapore has fewer people available for low-skilled and poorly paid jobs such as cleaners and the country is reluctant to import that unskilled labour,” says Wong.

In essence, many unskilled jobs are expected to disappear by 2050 in most developed economies. Accordingly, many low-skilled jobs have been disrupted in the EU, partly occasioning the ongoing irregular migration crisis in which African migrants, usually seeking low-skilled job opportunities there are barred.

However, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN-DESA), the emigration of the highly educated and highly-skilled persons from Sub-Saharan Africa is expected to flow into the developed world unabated.

Innovative methods

Notwithstanding, the flight of the highly-skilled persons from Sub-Saharan Africa and the welcoming they get from the developed economies will go beyond the historical brain drain syndrome but will enter into a new era of modern-day colonialism where developing countries will provide some elements of skilled-labour to the developed countries, almost for free.

According to Dr Mukhisa Kituyi, the secretary-general of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), sluggish economic performance has impacted negatively on countries in Sub-Saharan Africa to create quality jobs offering higher wages and better working conditions. No doubt such is the situation in Kenya.

But tracing back the Singaporean economic progress model, improvements in education outcomes have been central to that country’s success. According to the GCTI, Singapore, Switzerland, Sweden and other countries applying cutting edge technology in their development agenda vacated authoritarian learning style of education decades ago.

“Teachers in Singapore are given the flexibility to try innovative methods and attend 100 hours of in-service training annually to keep abreast of developments in science and technology,” says the report.

Similar strategies have been identified on paper by the African Union in Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 2016-25) which highlights the existing mismatch between what students learn and the demands of national development and the labour market.

Nevertheless, the success of such technological reforms will depend on how governments and other stakeholders invest in constant up-skilling of staff and offer work-based training opportunities to young people. So far, it is hard to tell whether Kenya and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa are ready to push their talent readiness to the limits.