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Degree versus diploma: This is why highly educated Kenyans tarmac

 Man sitting, holding his CV and waiting for a job interview. [Photo: Courtesy]
How does a diploma holder get a job immediately as a degree holder? While the diploma graduate is highly-skilled, the comrade is highly-educated We have a workforce that is highly educated but lacks practical skills

I have a cousin who earned a diploma in Air Conditioning and Refrigeration Systems Maintenance from the Kenya Polytechnic (now Technical University of Kenya) in 2012. He is barely in the country.   

Nairobi this week, Rwanda next week, South Sudan the week after. He literally decides which jobs to take or decline.

 I also have another friend who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from the Technical University of Mombasa (formerly   Mombasa Polytechnic) in 2015. He has been job searching for the past two years. He finally got lucky this month. He is now working as a teller with a local bank.  

Sounds ridiculous right?

How does a diploma holder get a job immediately as a degree holder spends three years tarmacking only to finally work in a field completely incongruent to what he studied?

 Allow me to tell you why.

While the former was taught practical skills in a Technical Training Institute, the latter spent a significant portion of his five years in university shuffling between lecture halls learning theories of knowledge. No firm is willing to employ such as it will have to spend time and money re-training him on practical industry skills.

 Gravest mistake

While the diploma graduate is highly-skilled, the comrade is highly-educated. That is the problem we have in this country. We have a workforce that is highly educated but lacks practical skills. This is why the Chinese are building our roads, bridges, and railway lines yet we have homespun engineers. 

The gravest mistake that the Kibaki Administration did in its quest to improve access to higher education was to upgrade all Technical Training Institutes, Polytechnics, and mid-level colleges to university status.

In the rush to give these institutions charters, they forgot to address two important questions: whether these institutions had the capacity to meet the skills needs of the future workforce it intended to train and whether the workforce they churned out would have the competency required to compete internationally.

 Copying technologies

One of the profound issues that Africa has to address — and address fast — is how to move from Third to First World. To make this transition, Africa has to emulate the “Asian Miracle” in global economics.

 Unlike Africa, countries like Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore had no mineral wealth. How did they change their economic trajectories such that they even overtook some First World countries?  

They focused on rapid technology-intensive economic development. They created national systems of innovation by copying technologies from First World economies as the late President Lee Kuan Yew informs us in his book, From Third to First: The Singapore Story 1965-2000. Most importantly, they invested in highly-skilled and not highly-educated human capital.

What is my point? Being highly-skilled is more important than bragging of being highly-educated in the 21st century.

Returns to education with regards to economic outcomes in a country are determined not by the number of university graduates but by the skill levels of its human capital.

 Lagged behind

 This is quite difficult to swallow, Right? To put this into perspective, let us take a look at Europe during Industrial Revolution in the 18th century.

As late as 1850, primary school enrolment in Britain stood at 11 percent according to The Industrial Revolution and Economic Growth,  a book by R.M. Hartwell which was published in 2017.

 In a nutshell, only 11 percent of children born in Britain in the 18th century enrolled in primary school. The remaining 89 percent did not.

 In contrast, Scandinavia had achieved full literacy by the turn of the 19th century. If there was a relationship between a highly-educated population and the rate of industrialization, Scandinavian countries should have industrialized faster.

However, Britain was the cradle of the Industrial Revolution while Scandinavia lagged behind in terms of economic development for a very long time.

Why did this happen? While school enrolment was low in Britain, something else was happening –apprenticeship and craftsmanship. Apprenticeship was a system in Britain where children between the ages of 12 and 15 would be sent to a craftsman who specialized in whatever it is they wanted to learn. The apprentices would then work under the master until they were 21. The apprenticeship system was so important in Britain that in 1653, the nation passed the Statute of Apprentices which made it illegal for anyone to practice a trade without having served under a master for a period of not less than seven years.


Little wonder

This is the primary reason why Britain was the technological leader in the world during the Industrial Revolution. It had a workforce which — though lacking in formal education — possessed the training and natural dexterity to come up with the ideas which economically revolutionised the world in the 18th century. Little wonder that Britain, tiny as it is, managed to colonise a third of the world including President Trump’s America, South Africa, India and even today, Australia is still under the Queen of England?

It is time for us to revive our Technical Training Institutes and mid-level colleges so that we can provide comprehensive skills training for the workforce of the future.

Otherwise, we will continue having people with Doctorates in engineering who cannot design our roads.

 Innocent Ngare is a writer and social media activist.


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