Skills to pay the bills: A focus on skills-based learning looks to address job shortages

With the government placing a greater emphasis on job market preparedness in its education policy, vocational training has come increasingly into the spotlight. However, while the current administration has sought to promote the efficacy of vocational training, uptake in this segment of the market is lagging. A recent 2016 report by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development – the government body tasked with developing new content for the country’s education system – has called for a stronger focus on vocational study. This represents a significant transformation for education policy in the East-African nation. Traditionally, schooling has focused on rote learning, testing and purely academic subjects. As such, a reorientation towards a skills-based curriculum will be a significant undertaking.

Opportunity Knocks

This is clear from the current performance of the technical vocational education and training (TVET) institutions funded by the government. While the capacity of these schools has increased to accept 50,000 new students each year, only 13,000 new places were occupied in the 2015/16 academic year. In total TVET institutions have a country-wide capacity of 400,000 trainees, but occupancy rates remain under 60%. Funding for this segment of the system is also underutilised. Although the government-funded Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) set aside KSh500m ($4.9m) for 20,000 students interested in vocational training, in 2015 only KSh396m ($3.9m) was disbursed to 11,000 students. The situation has not gone unnoticed by government officials. The current Ministry of Education has encouraged young Kenyans to join TVET institutions and acquire employable skills, but there is limited demand for vocational education.

Despite the fact that the employment rate for graduates from technical institutions is almost at 80%, youth unemployment remains as high as 70%. “The stigma against vocational schooling needs to be overcome. Kenya currently has a significant lack of skilled workers, such as welders,” Robert Gateru, vice-chancellor of Riara University, told OBG. Adding to this sentiment, Noah Midamba, professor and vice-chancellor of the Kenya College of Accountancy (KCA), told OBG, “This is a cultural issue, and to address this Kenyans need to reassess their values. In general, however, there is a problem with universities not balancing the theoretical with practical, and this imposes additional costs for employers who have to retrain after graduation.”

Moving Forward

Despite the challenges of demand, both public and private sector actors are pushing forward with investment in technical training. The KCA itself, for example, is planning to work with all 47 counties across Kenya to create vocational schools that are particular to the region. The government is also going ahead with the expansion of the sector, and in mid-2016 there were as many as 70 new TVET institutions under construction. The current administration is also moving forward with the second phase of the China-Kenya Vocational Education Cooperation Project. This scheme, which will involve investing in equipment, materials, computer hardware and software, and teachers, will support a further 135 institutions with $284m of funds. The first phase invested $30m in 10 technical training institutions. As of July 2016 Chinese faculty working under the project had trained more than 15,000 local staff.

Officials remain confident that the rollout of new colleges will absorb latent demand in the market. The government allocated KSh500m ($4.9m) in tuition support for technical colleges in 2017. This is in anticipation that technical colleges will provide an option for upwards of 400,000 students who failed to meet the criteria for university entrance.

As part of this anticipated influx, the government is also looking at ways of redirecting funds towards technical training. In February 2017 the local press reported that the government was considering cutting arts funding for universities and redirecting the money to HELB in order to support students attending technical training institutions.

There is, therefore, no shortage in the supply of vocational services. The government is hoping that the upgrade in quality and quantity will encourage more interest in the sector. Additionally, if the project succeeds it could lead to further opportunities at the tertiary university level. “Both public and private institutions are focusing on the humanities rather than technical education because it is expensive,” Eldah Onsomu, a policy analyst at the Kenya Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis, told OBG. “This is where public-private partnerships could work and provide immediate returns.”

Foreign Interest

A number of players are already beginning to look at such possibilities. In February 2017, Gerd Mueller, Germany’s economic cooperation and development minister, announced that the country plans to roll out a vocational training scheme in Kenya in coordination with the private sector, as part of a wider African development plan. According to the nascent plans, the German-sponsored programme will focus on manual and technical trades and reach as many as 5000 Kenyan students in the next five years by working hand-in-hand with private sector businesses and associations.

The scheme will also offer 500 scholarships and advanced teacher training for up to 100 instructors involved in technical education. The emphasis on private sector business cooperation is a potentially important departure for educational provision in the country. Part of the plan – a scheme to establish a new East African-German university of sciences – will be bankrolled by Germany’s Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “Vocational training is the key to more investment and jobs in Africa,” Mueller told the German-African Economic Summit in Nairobi. “That is why we are starting with a new vocational training programme whose recipe for success is its practical orientation and the emphasis on cooperation with the private sector. Businesses looking to invest in Africa need well-trained, skilled workers; Africa’s young people need training and prospects for the future. By bringing those two needs together we will be able to boost investment in Africa.”

The new institution will be modelled on German universities of applied sciences, and will act as a template for tertiary educational development across the whole region. The university will focus on regional labour market needs and establish links with the local business community. German applied sciences universities will be invited to enter a competitive bid to develop the new Kenyan institution.


Given Germany’s strong reputation for technical training, the Kenyan authorities hope that the local programme can reproduce similar results for the local economy. Indeed, Germany had a relatively healthy youth unemployment rate of 6.5% and a long-term unemployment rate of just 1.7% as of 2016. The country has retained a strong and productive industrial base, remaining in the world’s top-10 for value-added contribution to GDP in manufacturing, and yet has also managed to integrate a wide range of university graduates into their labour force. These are now the outstanding challenges for Kenya, and the government hopes that its renewed emphasis on technical and vocational training will help to overcome these difficulties in the coming years.