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Skilling Africa’s Informal Sector for Growth: The Role of Technical and Vocational Education and Training

Maame Esi Eshun
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A student working on carpentry at Nyanza Vocational training center in Southern Rwanda. Photo courtesy of Graham Holliday via Flickr Commons. 

Education and training for productive employment is an important tool for economic growth and development. Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) — an aspect of the educational process — is viewed as a tool for productivity enhancement towards achieving economic growth. TVET focuses on practical applications of skills learned, and are intended to prepare trainees to become effective professionals in a specific vocation. It also equips trainees with a broad range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are indispensable for meaningful participation in work and life.

As African countries aspire to join the ranks of developed countries, the need for a skilled workforce becomes even more necessary. Africa needs a skilled labor force to construct and maintain roads, buildings, railways, and bridges. Training individuals to be technically skilled mechanics, engineers, shoemakers, and garment makers, among other professions increases a country's competitiveness globally. Individuals who acquire TVET training in jewelry making, auto and refrigerator repairs, electronic repairs, etc., often set up their own businesses, and enroll new entrants for training. According to the World Bank, skilled workers enhance the quality and efficiency of product development, production, and maintenance, and they supervise and train workers with lesser skills. As a matter of fact, countries with well-established TVET systems tend to enjoy lower youth unemployment. This is because the orientation of TVET coupled with the acquisition of employability skills allow it to address issues such as skills mismatch that has impeded smooth school-to-work transitions for many young people. Lower youth unemployment is key to improving lives and building stronger communities necessary for growth.

Countries like the Asian Tigers — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan have invested heavily and successfully adopted policies not only in university education and polytechnic training but also in technical and vocational education which have resulted in the emergence of a highly skilled workforce. These countries successfully used technical and vocational training to upskill their economies, which made their workers more productive and their respective economies more innovative. It, therefore, becomes increasingly clear that skills development policies such as TVETs play a critical role in national development.

Linking TVET to the Informal Sector

Growing unemployment in most African countries has forced large numbers of the youth to pursue employment in the informal sector, mostly through self-employment or entrepreneurship. It is not surprising that in most African countries over 80 percent of workers are in the informal sector, either engaged in agriculture or in urban informal economic activities such as selling, where low and unpredictable earnings, poor working conditions, and low productivity are pervasive. In Kenya and Rwanda for instance, three out of four workers are employed in the informal sector.

The high rates of informality are largely due, in part, to the upsurge in labor supply compared to the limited pace of job demand in Africa's formal sector. Moreover, the typical educational standard in most developing countries is inadequate in equipping the youth with the requisite knowledge and skills needed for the workforce (that is poor alignment of educational curricula to labor market demand), further limiting their access to employment opportunities. The consequent is youth unemployment, underemployment, and limited capacity in terms of know-how for exploring other viable livelihood alternatives, such as self-employment. Despite the potential of the informal sector for employment, there is always the debate of formalizing informal activities due to their unregulated nature. Bringing informal sector activities under a regulatory environment, among others, increases fiscal revenues to the state and facilitates access to formal financial services which is necessary for business upscaling to enhance job creation, and consequently growth.

Countries like Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Morocco, are explicitly addressing the needs of the informal economy by opening their TVET educational system to informal economy needs. Morocco, for instance, does that through the Department of Eradication of Illiteracy and Non-Formal Education under the Moroccan Ministry of Education, where the skill needs of school dropouts are addressed. Under the program, children excluded from the formal system are integrated into vocational education in order to promote youth employment. More than 6000 young Rwandans are benefiting from the government's Skills Development Fund, an initiative aimed at helping the youth to acquire various technical and vocational skills. Other countries that are prioritizing skills development and TVET initiatives include Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Ethiopia, Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, among others.

The Challenge with TVET

Despite the progress made by African governments to skill the youth and workers through TVET, provisions are still fraught with challenges. In most African countries, there is an inherent bias in the form of low prestige towards technical and vocational courses, and it is generally associated with low educational attainment. For example, most youth are oriented to prefer academically based professions to TVET competency or skill-based professions. Meanwhile, there is a real demand for both lower- and middle-level skilled (manpower) workers in many industries, which are not being met. As a matter of fact, in some African countries, labor for road and housing construction are mostly done by Chinese and other foreigners. In Ghana, for instance, some employers have lamented on the difficulties associated with looking for local workers with technical skills especially for construction and extractive industries, while some specific technical skills are virtually non-existent. This presupposes that one of the greatest gaps in human resource development is in vocational education and technical skills training.

Technical and vocational training centers also suffer from underfunding, obsolete and inadequate training equipment and tools. There is also a consistent decline in the quality of training offered as most instructors do not have the requisite industrial and practical experience, and a lack of linkage between training institutions and the needs of industry. This is because there are limited mechanisms or structures to involve employers and industry in the TVET planning process. As such, research on TVET in Ghana for instance, has shown that employment rates of TVET graduates in Ghana are low since actual content of TVET programs does not meet the needs of the market. It is also recognized that poor alignments occur between government priorities for growth and the type of graduates coming out of the TVET system. The cumulative impact of these constraints has created a situation where the practice of TVET has tended to be limited in focus on the acquisition of practical skills necessary for the development of a skilled workforce.

Paradigm Shift

The challenge therefore is how TVET training can produce graduates with skills that can respond to the needs of a highly competitive and dynamic global market and industry. As experts propose linking formal education to industry needs and demands, in the same way, employment concerns should lead to strengthened links between TVET skills and industry demand in the economy. This requires strong collaboration between TVET institutions, private sector, and labor unions or industry associations in organizing skills training programs and standards, as well as in developing curricula so that training courses in TVET institutions are tailored towards the needs of the industry. TVET institutions should also be abreast with labor market analysis and skills forecasts to ensure their training is forward-looking. Ultimately, TVET in Africa needs to be redesigned to make it attractive to the youth, and for people to understand its implications for national development. Children — especially when they begin wish-lists for their future job options — should be educated about the opportunities in TVET. Therefore, making the paradigm shift in TVET means developing the mindset that TVET prepares young people to become job creators. This becomes a collective responsibility of the state, parents, industry and productive sectors, and learners or pupils themselves.

Utilizing Africa's growing youth population therefore comes with developing their technical and vocational skills in order to respond to the different types of industry needs. Most fundamental to this is about changing the mindset of the TVET sector. If the sector is to meet the increasing demands of the global labor market, it needs to undergo a major transformation by becoming more efficient and collaborative.

Maame Esi Eshun is a former Southern Voices Network Scholar for Peacebuilding. She is currently the Research Coordinator of SEND Ghana, an affiliate of SEND West Africa.

About the Author

Maame Esi Eshun

Maame Esi Eshun

Former Southern Voices Network Scholar;
Regulatory Research Analyst at the Public Utilities Regulatory Commission, Ghana
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