World Skills Day should usher in new thinking in the labour sector

Pomp and colour painted the launch of the WorldSkills Africa competition in Swakopmund, Namibia. [Emmanuel Too, Standard]

World Youth skills Day will be celebrated next week on July 15. Designated by the UN General Assembly in 2014, the day provides a unique opportunity for dialogue towards acknowledging and celebrating the importance of equipping young people with skills for employment, decent work and entrepreneurship. 

The theme for this year is ‘Transforming Youth Skills for the Future’. Events in honour of the day tend to involve opportunities to provide young people with spaces for dialogue with educational institutions, employers, policymakers, and development partners. The up-skilling of the youth has become increasingly important in light of the world slowly shifting to sustainable development. 

As we mark this day, it is imperative we take stock of our growing youth population in relation to the dynamics in the labour market. The sticky matter is the high numbers of unemployment, especially in skilled and fairly educated youth. How can we explore this year’s theme to generate new thinking to better equip our youth in a sustainable manner for them to thrive in the labour market? The first thing is to diagnose the problem, then trouble shoot it.

Some of the skills that would make an individual successful in the labour market, and which employers expect you to demonstrate include resilience, commercial awareness, good communication, effective leadership and management, planning and research skills, adaptability, teamwork and interpersonal skills, and technology skills.

Unfortunately, a good number of our graduates lack these requisite skills, a clear indication that our higher learning institutions ought to revisit the curriculum they offer. The growing number of educated unemployed people suggests weak links between education, the training system and the labour market. The Kenyan graduate has, over time, been facing a number of challenges during their time in institutions of higher learning. These challenges have translated into bigger problems - unemployment due to the quality of education offered in these institutions, the high cost of higher education, the skill gap between these graduates and the job market, and the move by these institutions to base their education more on theory than practicals. Such are the challenges our students and graduates face during and after education in institutions of higher learning. 

What measures can be taken to bridge these gaps?

Nearly two-thirds of the 165 million jobs in the US economy in the year 2020 required higher education qualifications, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. This coincides with the rising cost of University education, sky-high levels of student debt, and a mismatch between employer needs and employee skillsets. Similar predicaments bedevil the Kenyan higher learning system.

How can Kenyan institutions begin to close this gap?

A report by The Economist suggests that the return on investment of a college degree is at an all-time high for young people. However, the value of their qualification decreases when more people are graduating in their country. At the same time, the widening of the income gap deems it crucial that more young Americans earn tertiary qualifications to even enter the job market.

To this end, more colleges and universities are lamping up financial and assistance programmes for minority or underprivileged communities. One example is the Latino U College Access in New York, which provides culturally-sensitive training to prepare low-income high school students to apply, prepare and pay for college. In order for efforts such as these to bear fruit, more institutions must beef up admissions counselling as well as student engagement and support, thus ensuring consistent course enrollment and completion.

Evolve with career opportunities

Employers are struggling to fill jobs in skilled trades; information technology, accounting and finance, among others. Labour market experts said 47 percent of all new job openings from 2010 to 2020 fell into the middle-skills range. This refers to jobs that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. At the same time, arts curricula are gaining favour among employers for their development of strategic thinking skills that are so critical in middle management roles. This alludes to the importance of soft skills in fortifying industry-relevant capabilities. Together, they can drive up graduate employment in fulfilling careers.

Partner with local corporations and employers

Understanding regional labour demands and trends will help institutions better tailor programme offerings and point them towards suitable corporate training and employment partnerships. This approach requires proactive measures from the nation’s largest corporations. For example, the Boeing Advanced Research Center lab at the University of Washington has been engaging local school students in annual “Discovery Days” for five years now. The initiative serves to excite and inspire them to become America’s future scientists and aviation experts.

Lessons from Iceland

According to an article published by Statista Research Department on April 12 this year, Iceland has had a relatively high employment rate from 2010 to 2020. The employment rate was just below 80 percent in 2010 and 2011, as it recovered from the global financial crisis of 2008.

In Iceland, the employment rate peaked in 2016 before decreasing slightly in 2020 due to the corona virus pandemic. Despite this, Iceland had one of the highest employment rates in the world in 2020, at 80.3 percent. Norway Sweden and Switzerland are other countries which lead in high youth employment rate.

Iceland performs well in many dimensions of well-being relative to other countries in the Better Life Index. Iceland outperforms the average in jobs, health, environmental quality, social connections, civic engagement, safety and life satisfaction. It underperforms average in education. These assessments are based on available selected data.

In terms of employment, about 78 per cent of people aged 15 to 64 in Iceland have a paid job, above the OECD employment average of 66 per cent. Some 80 per cent of men are in paid work, compared with 75 per cent of women. In Iceland, 12 per cent of employees work very long hours in paid work, above the OECD average of 10 per cent, with 18 per cent of men working very long hours in paid work compared with 5 per cent of women.

Good education and skills are important requisites for finding a job. In Iceland, 76 per cent of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, lower than the OECD average of 79 per cent.

However, completion varies between men and women, as 74 per cent of men have successfully completed high school compared with 78 per cent of women. In terms of the quality of the education system, the average student scored 481 in reading literacy, maths and science in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). This score is lower than the OECD average of 488. On average in Iceland, girls outperformed boys by 20 points, well above the average OECD gap of 5 points.

In Iceland, 78 per cent of the working-age population aged 15 to 64 have a paid job. This figure is way higher than the OECD employment average of 66 per cent and one of the highest rates in the OECD.

A well-educated and well-trained population is essential for a country’s social and economic well-being. Education plays a key role in providing individuals with the knowledge, skills and competences needed to participate effectively in society and in the economy.

Having a good education greatly improves the likelihood of finding a job and earning enough money. People in Iceland can expect to go through 18.8 years of education between the ages of 5 and 39, similar to the OECD average of 18 years. Graduating from upper secondary education has become increasingly important in all countries, as the skills needed in the labour market are becoming more knowledge-based. High-school graduation rates therefore provide a good indication of whether a country is preparing its students to meet the minimum requirements of the job market. In Iceland, 76 per cent of adults aged 25-64 have completed upper secondary education, lower than the OECD average of 78 per cent. Despite this, Iceland has one of the best employment rates in the world.

But graduation rates, while important, speak little to the quality of education received. The OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) reviews the extent to which students have acquired some of the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. In 2018, PISA focused on examining students’ reading ability, skills in maths and level in sciences, as research shows that these skills are more reliable predictors of economic and social well-being than the number of years spent in school. 

The government has implemented programmes key in empowering  the youth in higher learning institutions with the fundamental skills in the job market to promote entrepreneurship. The programmes include:

The National Youth Innovators Entrepreneurship Programme

To  empower young talented people with the skills required to develop and transform their inventions and innovations into entrepreneurial products and thereafter linked to partners in the industry ecosystem. The programme is based on the STEP (Students Training on Entrepreneurial Programme) model which is a research–based and hands–on training programme.

National Apprenticeship Programme

To improve the employability and earning opportunities of out-of-school youth, through access to apprenticeship programs. The objective of the Programme is to improve the occupational skills and competencies of out-of-school youth. The youth are trained on-the-job through work place learning methodology. The Programme is currently being piloted at RIVATEX, Moi University. Under this Pilot, the youth will be trained, for a period of three (3) months, in the field of textiles, specifically, Spinning, Weaving, Finishing, Tailoring and Textile engineering.

National Industry Traineeship Programme

The State Department for Post Training and Skills Development maps industries that are ready to train the youth.

Currently, the Department has mapped over 400 industries spread out in 36 Counties. The Department then sources and places the youth in these industries for training. The goal of this programme is to improve the employability and earning opportunities of out-of-school youth, through access to on-the-job training.

Office of Career Services

The State Department for Post Training and Skills Development requires all tertiary educational institutions to establish Office of Career Services. The goal of the OCS is to establish high-quality career development programs in order produce graduates that are employable and productive and thus bridge the skills mismatch.

National Talent Programme

This creates a culture of creativity, innovation, curiosity and productive entrepreneurship among out of school youth in Kenya. The aspirations of this programme is to apply Science, Technology and Innovation to enable the youth become innovators and job creators. Under this programme, the youth are provided with opportunities and services to help them acquire scientific, technological and innovative skills using their existing knowledge and experiences.

National Online Employment Training Programme

This is a new programme that was developed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which unfolded a nationwide shock effect on the labour market. Technologies such as online collaboration tools merged to enable remote working in various jobs that once required person-to-person interactions.