There is an argument that under-utilisation of human capital – which could be described as a lack of job skills -- is perhaps the biggest single factor contributing to Zambia’s lack of development. Without it, all other resources such as capital, land and nature are of little use. People have to be trained in the techniques and skills to do their jobs, but in the area of technical and vocational training it all comes unstuck. Charles Mafa reports.

The importance of technical and vocational training is widely recognised. The Government notes in the Sixth National Development Plan (SNDP) that education and skills development play a critical role in socio-economic development.  The SNDP adds that the training sector “provides opportunities for growth, poverty reduction, employment, productivity and human development”.

The trouble is that technical and vocational training is messed up by lack of funding and a curriculum that is not responsive to the demands of the labour market.

A visit to some vocational training institutions in Lusaka revealed that current physical infrastructure for training is dilapidated, insufficient, and not fully utilised. Materials for training are in short supply due to funding constraints. Facilities and equipment are worn out and technologically outdated. Furthermore, the vocational training centres have library and information services that range from poor to non-existent.

Experts say the sector suffered under government austerity measures introduced by the MMD in the 1990s to tame inflation and tighten fiscal discipline. Lloyd Mbasela, training manager at the Industrial Training Centre (ITC) in Lusaka, had his institution negatively affected by the reforms, which saw all vocational training institutions delinked from government. Mr Mbasela, who was retrenched from Mansa Trades Training Institute where he was a lecturer at the time, said each institution was to stand on its own and generate its own resources.

Survival of the trades training system has to an extent become slave to work fashions. Institutions tend to promote courses that attract students, whereas in the days when government was paying for trades training there was equitable distribution of skills being taught. “Today, the government is saying they cannot pay for anyone.”

The system of student preference for certain courses has resulted in certain trades becoming “poor cousins” of the more popular choices. Plumbing is one of them, for example. It is not a popular choice for students even though the rewards for good plumbing skills are high. So, asks Mr Mbasela, “Who will pay for plumbing?” Then he answers his own question. “No one,” he says. “With regard to much needed skills in the country like plumbing, bricklaying, carpentry, there are very poor enrolment numbers and this has resulted in colleges closing down.”

It causes other problems as well. Employers on the mines, for example, find that shortages of well-trained artisans force them to look outside the country for workers, and when they do they come in for strident political criticism for not employing qualified Zambians. The trouble is, Zambian artisans with the requisite qualifications and training are much fewer than some politicians may think, a situation that is almost certainly a result of the breakdown in the formal training sector.

Some students spoken to said they choose courses that offer high chances of their being employed. Many preferred courses such as automotive engineering, electrical and electronics, computer systems engineering, and business courses.

For Gwen Munengezha, 22, an employee of Kansanshi mine in Solwezi, choosing electrical work was a response to her childhood dream. She went to Solwezi Trades Training Institute where she completed a two-year course and obtained a craft certificate in the male-dominated industry. “I really had an interest in electrical work. I started thinking about it when I was young,” she says.

Mr Mbasela described vocational training as “the hub of any country’s development….The problem is that we have overlooked these skills. It is like going into a hospital where you have doctors without nurses. Can it work?” he asks. “You can have one doctor and many nurses to do the other (associated and back-up) work. This is more or less like in the engineering sector. We have the engineers, but we are overlooking the element of the people who do the actual work.”  

Vocational training can help create employment for young people who drop out of school at various levels of their education. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes that technical education is there to provide “the much needed skills for people’s employability and also to provide (skills for) the productive sector.”

As it happens, the labour market is not satisfied with the quality of trained manpower available for the industries that require vocational skills. The recently released 2013 ILO report on youth employment trends notes that one of the major causes of unemployment is skills mismatch -- the skills that people are getting are not the skills that industry wants.

Skills mismatch on youth labour markets has become a persistent and growing trend. Such a mismatch makes solutions to the youth employment crisis more difficult to find and more time consuming to implement,” the report states. 

That finding is echoed in a 1996 technical education, vocational and entrepreneurship training policy, which held that the present vocational training system produced graduates whose knowledge, skills and attitudes did not match the needs of the present labour market.

Employers interviewed echo similar sentiments. They say that in most cases new graduates require on-the-job training to bridge the gap between the inadequacies that are noted in the application of technology, handling of equipment and their practical experience.

Also, existing institutions providing technical education and training have neither the ability nor resources to adequately offer skills to the large number of unemployed to enable them to find work. Sources at various institutions say the current monthly government grant of about KR33,000 is not adequate for schools to operate successfully.

Inevitably then, attention also comes to focus around informal on-the-job training, and how that, along with whatever formal training exists, could help bring down the high unemployment levels. Vernon Bulowa, 30, a metal fabricator of Kabanana Compound in Lusaka, is one of many entrepreneurs earning a living from informally-learned vocational skills. Mr Bulowa was hired as an apprentice by a neighbour in making window and door frames.

Said John Banda of the ILO office: “There is need to recognize informal apprenticeship, where somebody, the father or uncle, is a carpenter and they are learning from them. There is need to give such people a certificate or an advanced certificate so that they promote that skill.”

As always, however, there is the problem of whether the requisite levels of skill can be reached by such informal training. Presumably the worry is that bad habits of a do-it-yourself worker are likely to be passed on to learners, along with whatever habits of good practice that such workers might have. Zambia’s trade workers have a very poor reputation in terms of their skill levels, and it may be that the failure of the formal training sector and resulting increase in informal training, has contributed to this.

Mr Bulowa says he is in a tough business but in a good month he can make about KR5, 000. “It is not easy, but what you need is to be disciplined and deliver orders to customers on time.” He said it is this attitude that has helped him succeed in his business, build his own house and put his children through school. “People must change their attitude of always wanting to be employed after their studies. What this country needs are people who can have skills to employ themselves and employ others,” he says.

The Government is looking at plans to introduce vocational training much earlier in the education system so that school leavers have both academic and practical competencies. Says Dr Patrick Nkanza, Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Education: “If at grade 12, I have a GCE (General Certificate of Education) and a craft certificate I have choices. I can go to the university if I want with my GCE certificate or I can go to the world of work with my craft certificate. I can start my own business because I have been properly trained…and that is the main thrust of the new policies,” he says.

He further explains: “What we would like to do is to provide a mechanism by which the curriculum can be covered in a flexible way, which means you can be able to take units of the curriculum at various times. So you can learn and work but then once you finish all the modules then you have your certificate. That is the very flexible way to train people.”  

Others believe the way to go is to upgrade existing vocational training institutions into polytechnic universities that can offer degrees-level courses. “Let’s say a degree in welding, a degree in carpentry. That is the route other countries are taking like Japan, Korea, Singapore,” says the ILO’s Mr Banda.

The government says there is also need to encourage public private partnerships in the provision of technical and vocational training. Dr Nkanza says it is encouraging that mining institutions have teamed up with trades training institutions in providing training for the skills needed in the mining sector.

The country representative for JICA, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, Teranishi Yoshihide advises the need to model Zambia’s experiences on other countries. Most technical education and vocational training in Japan is managed with the support by government, he says.

“Of course the private sector is coming in but you should know that to provide technical education and vocational training, especially in industrial fields, scientific fields or engineering fields, the costs or expenses are higher than just providing lectures.”            

Jun Tsukahara, a Japanese volunteer working at Industrial Training Centre says: “What I have observed is that in Zambia certification is a very important thing, but in Japan most employers think experience is very important. In Japan, when you are skilled, the paper (qualifications) becomes secondary.”

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