Millions of skilled people locked out of the job market or underpaid for lack of certificates are set for a lifeline as Kenya rolls out a process to identify, assess and certify skills.
Their skills will rank equally with those acquired through formal education.
The process, technically called recognition of prior learning (RPL), is modelled on those of countries such as South Africa and Canada, which have given value to skills as opposed to the obsession with certificates.
Millions of people in both formal and informal sectors are looking forward to RPL in an economy where even those in white-collar jobs have ended up pursuing and excelling in careers they never studied for and received certificates for.
The Kenya National Qualifications Authority (KNQA), which was set up in 2015 for quality assurance on all education qualifications awarded in the country, is gearing up for the launch of RPL.
This will give room for people, including juakali artisans and refugees, to be assessed, issued with certificates and their names put in the national database to make them competitive.
“As a society, what moves us are skills. Papers do not always represent the skills one has. If you can’t write or speak English, it is called illiteracy. But in which language does a mechanic repair a car?” poses KNQA Director-General Mr Juma Mukhwana.
“No wonder the tragedy now is that those without papers are looking for jobs and those without jobs are looking for papers. We want to dignify skills.”
RPL is, therefore, seen as a pathway to help Kenya catch up with markets such as South Africa, where the skilled blacks, who had resisted education as part of the protest against apartheid, received such certification and made them useful in the economy.
Kenya’s economy is characterised by a shrinking formal sector and an informal sector that is increasingly expanding and absorbing entrants from schools and training institutions to the labour market.
The country drew up the first RPL draft in 2019, but it only came to the fore last year after President Uhuru Kenyatta issued a 30-day ultimatum to issue a policy framework for recognition of informal sector skills.
The President said the policy would address unfairness in tendering for contracts, which often locks out jua Kali artisans and craftsmen due to lack of papers.
KNQA recently held a workshop in Nakuru to fine-tune the policy framework ahead of a national RPL conference that will officially roll out the process across the counties.
KNQA Director of Technical Services Mr Stanley Maindi said Kenya’s education system had for long been fragmented — running without a reference to a national standard.
“RPL qualifications will compete equally with other qualifications since they will all be guided by a national standard,” said Mr Maindi.
The success of RPL certification will give Kenya an opportunity to transform its labour force from informal to formal and open doors for decent opportunities in markets such as the Middle East.
Azimio la Umoja-One Kenya coalition presidential candidate Mr Raila Odinga recently emphasised the significance of RPL, pledging to support groups such as the jua kali artisans if he succeeds President Kenyatta.
He said millions of skilled Kenyans are being underpaid “terribly” for their skills due to a lack of recognised certification as middlemen benefit from their skills.
“When ships dock at the coast and require repairs, among others, our plumbers, fitters both wood and metals works, have photo albums to show for their work done instead of recognised certificates, thus lose the opportunities to the middlemen,” said Mr Odinga.
“This will change after the adoption of RPL, where they will secure directly paid opportunities in the blue economic sector.”
The government has already hired a consultant with the support of the International Labour Organisation to help in developing the costing of the units.
The costing of units will spell out how much is paid for certification and who pays it even as KNQA said it targets to make it affordable.
Firms, such as the Kwale-based miner Base Titanium, are already partnering with KNQA on the pilot phase of the RPL programme.
Base Titanium plans to close the mine in about 24 months and is keen to issue RPL certification to its employees to recognise their skills in addition to the normal certificates of service.
“We want them to have future employment bargain for themselves. Base Titanium is going to take care of all the costs involved and has been asking employees to sign up,” said Base Titanium Training Officer for Systems and External Development Ms Joan Kago.
Workers such as arc and gas, welders, electricians and plumbers — the majority being from Kwale — are, for instance, going to benefit from the certification.
Director of Accreditation and Outreach Services at the Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority Mr Fred Oanda said the entity is ready to start accrediting RPL assessors.
“We have developed the standard for quality assurance, and we look forward to certifying accrediting centres and assessors across the country,” said Mr Oanda.
Skills assessment and certification will begin with automotive engineering, tailoring, hairdressing and welding before scaling up to other areas, according to Principal Secretary in the State Department of Vocational and Technical Training Ms Margaret Mwakima.
“RPL will go a long way in increasing visibility of the skills and competencies that are in the informal sector,” said Ms Mwakima.
The economy last year created an additional 926,100 jobs, mainly from the informal sector, as the number of salaried jobs failed to recover to pre-Covid-19 levels.
Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data shows the number of Kenyans in employment rose to 18.33 million in 2021 from 17.41 million in the preceding year.
The rise means that the economy, which in 2020 shed 736,000 jobs on the back of Covid-19 disruptions, has recovered these jobs and created an additional 190,100 during the period under review.
However, salaried jobs failed to return to pre-pandemic levels, forcing thousands of job seekers to turn to the informal sector.
Jobs in the informal sector recovered from a shrink of 543,800 in 2020 to increase by 753,800 and close the year at 15.26 million — being above the pre-pandemic level of 15.05 million.