How education can respond to labour markets

Tuesday April 03 2018

Last week I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion on education and markets at the Goethe Institute (German Cultural Centre) in Nairobi.

The discourse comes at a critically disruptive period of rapid technological changes as the world gears itself towards the start of the fourth industrial revolution.

Prof Kimani Njogu moderated the discussions. My fellow panellists included development economist Anzetse Were and Christine Freitag of Germany’s Bonn-Rhein-Sieg University of Applied Sciences and a project manager of the German-African University Partnership (GAUP).

Our key objective was to consider how we could build an educational system that met the aspirations of Kenyans in terms of their immediate needs. A locally driven system with relevant curricula that addresses social and economic considerations but also not blind to global trends.


Panellists agreed that our education systems since independence have not addressed simple problems that the country still faces.


These include employability of its products, productivity of small-scale farmers as well as micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

While we fail to address the labour markets, small-scale farmers have productivity problems even as they contribute more than 70 per cent of the food we require and employ the majority of people in the country.

Ms Were emphasized the importance of focusing on MSMEs as they have become a critical cog for national development.

The 2016 MSMEs survey by the Kenya Bureau of Statistics showed that the sector contributed about 34 per cent to GDP and provided more than 81 per cent of employment opportunities.


In absolute terms, approximately 14.9 million people work informally or in unlicensed enterprises, contributing 57.8 per cent. Paid employees in licensed businesses totalled four million.

These staggering numbers are as a result of an educational system that is not aligned to its markets, a fact that became apparent when Ms Freitag made her presentation.

She explained Germany’s dual system that addressed both theory and practice. At the vocational level, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research explains:

The dual system is firmly established in the German education system. The main characteristic of the dual system is cooperation between mainly small and medium sized companies, on the one hand, and publicly funded vocational schools, on the other. This cooperation is regulated by law.

Trainees in the dual system typically spend part of each week at a vocational school and the other part at a company, or they may spend longer periods at each place before alternating. Dual training usually lasts two to three-and-a-half years.


In contrast, Kenyan training institutions have never managed to have an effective internship programme to enable many of those looking for vocational training to have hands-on training.

Failure to address gaps at the tertiary level has greater implications, considering the fact that the pyramid education system leaves more learners at lower levels that often have limited opportunity to meet their aspirations.

I have listened to many speakers on Kenya’s lacklustre development and how at one point the country was ahead of Asia’s newly industrialized countries (NICs), but few ever tell the strategies these countries used.

First, they dealt with their educational systems. Indeed, South Korea keenly studied the German and Swiss dual apprenticeship system and implemented it in their country as they struggled to work their way out of poverty.

As a result, South Korea effectively dealt with its employment needs, including tackling the country's high youth unemployment rate at the time and in the process reforming South Korea's entire education system.


Kenya could emulate the same experience that Korea went through, taking advantage of the many jua kali enterprises that continue to produce substandard goods that make the country uncompetitive.

With a proper mentorship and training programme, many of the youth would find meaningful incomes that would then serve as an enticement to consider vocational training that many eschew at the moment.

Sectors like agriculture will become important to young people if they realise there are greater benefits that they can obtain from the farms.

In higher education, too, Germany has a dual system. In addition to the traditional universities, there are technical universities that specialise in applied natural and engineering sciences but also enjoy university status.

Whilst traditional universities are pretty much similar to virtually all other institutions of higher learning, applied sciences universities are staffed by faculty that has had at least five years of industry experience.

The success of Germany is largely due to the linkages between universities, industry and government.


If Kenya managed to build such a relationship, universities will become less dependent on government and begin to create wealth through intellectual property.

With the resources that are at the disposal of many public universities, there is virtually no reason why they should be perennially on strike to demand staff pay increases.

The panel discussion noted that successful universities have heavily invested through intellectual properties and innovation in lucrative enterprises.

Owing to the fact that many young Kenyans at the mushrooming incubation hubs are creatively searching for new ideas that they can exploit, universities must seek to collaborate and be part of any emerging start-up.

There were other issues like pedagogy, culture and content that the panel tried to tackle.

As the country prepares to structurally change the education system, there is a need to enable inclusive public participation in order to come up with a system that represents the country’s needs.


Of great importance are the pedagogical methods now prevalent in Kenya. Teachers prefer rote learning because of the focus on exams. This is defeatist and the end result may be not what the country needs in the long run.

There is a need to retrain teachers to focus on arousing the curiosity of early learners. This may not necessarily be classroom-based.

Children must be left to explore and ask questions but this requires a dedicated teacher. We may go to the basics of African learning systems that we abandoned in favour of Western methods.

African attitudes toward learning and employment fail to appreciate creative people and look down upon those who have not excelled in academia.

This is what precipitates an unwarranted desire by parents to have children undertake courses that have nothing to do with their desires.

Many young people with talent get lost in the melee of their parents’ desires and their own aspirations.


If young learners want to be chefs, let them be. As it is at the moment, the parents won’t recognise such talent, with many getting depressed that their child had embarrassed them.

How then do we create jobs if we can’t allow young people do what they love?

Perhaps what Kenya needs more in reforming education is the right content than the structural changes to the education system.

The content in schools is lacking in many ways. The foundation of a successful future lies in localisation of content to meet our contextual needs.

Local content not only increases employment opportunities but it helps in preserving important cultural foundations.
The technological dynamics is such that many jobs will cease to be there and new ones will be created.


Surviving in this kind of environment requires lifelong learning such that at any time you are relevant to emerging jobs.
Those who fail to cope with the modern world often fall through the cracks and become a burden to society.

Yet continuous learning is possible with technology. One can virtually train in anything from the massive content that is freely available online.

The audience expressed their fears that not much could be achieved from the current system where learners have no idea what the industry needs.

It is incumbent upon policymakers to consult widely and adopt an educational system that will address problems facing wananchi but also be cognisant of global trends.

The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi’s School of Business. Twitter: @bantigito