Student Chapter

Date Posted

Towards an Optimal Mix of Knowledge and Skills.

Amongst the technicians and craftsmen currently in the engineering industry, there are some who have never attended educational institutions – who have acquired all their skills through observation and practice. They probably started out as porters and rose through the ranks as they acquired the skills. And then there are those who have educational certificates but are utterly clueless about the actual work they need to do. They have to start learning from scratch when it would seem to an observer that their learning is at some kind of end.

These two types of workers are not representative of the entire industry, but they represent a substantial fraction, or at least a substantial fraction falls along the continuum the extremes of which they represent. The two types are not figments of my imagination, but evident realities: I know a gentleman who has never attended a technical institution but who has been hired by multinational construction firms to work as a foreman on several of our highway projects and who has executed his duties with distinction.

The two types of workers are especiallyinteresting when you consider their economic implications. One type didn’t cost the country a single penny while acquiring the skills – on the contrary, they contributed something to the treasury as they rose through the ranks.The other type cost the taxpayer a great deal, but they still lack the skills possessed by the former.

Of course the trained-on-job workers would have a greater work capacity if they were familiar with engineering theory. Indeed, faced with situations that require engineering judgment, they may make decisions that prove disastrous, even fatal. But it’s important to know the type and amount of theory they actually need, for beyond a certain point (in terms of quantity and relevance) of theory acquisition, there would be diminishing returns on the investment of personal time and national resources.Any measures to reduce the waste serve our economy well.

The recent changes in the curricula for technical institutions, with introduced emphasis on practical skills and ‘real life projects’, represent a step towards the mix of education and training that most effectively and efficiently serves national development targets. They represent a sound philosophy of imparting skills primarily through practice, and ensuring that the students contribute to national development while acquiring the skills. A visitor to our technical institutions will find impressive buildings and machines that are outputs of ‘real-life projects’, and that now serve the institutions as staff quarters, classroom blocks, etc. There is something tangible to show for the state investment in these students, besides the strong indication that the students will eventually easily blend into the world of work. By cutting on the theory and requiring students to spend more time in a field-like, albeit college-based, environment, the curricula changes have trimmed the educational waste that has, for decades, been heavily detrimental to our economy.

But more needs to be done, and key among these is the strengthening of the links between educational institutions and industry players. It’s therefore fitting that the recently launched Uganda BTVET Strategic Plan (Skilling Uganda) seeks closer involvement of the business community and employers in BTVET. The following is an extract from the document (available on the website of the Ministry of Education and Sports):

“Strong employer involvement is a key ingredient in a relevant and dynamic system of skills development, as employers tend to know best what skills are needed. Training delivered by companies is typically better and more aligned with the requirements of the labor market because trainees are exposed to the real world of work… Own training activities by employers, either in-house or delivered by external training providers, will be supported. To this end, the GoU (including the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development) in cooperation with employers and their associations will work out and launch an attractive incentive package, which may include tax incentives and cost-reimbursements once the training levy is set up. The provision of internships is currently not sufficient to meet the growing demand. Together with employers, the BTVET Department will develop a plan to improve the availability of internships. This will include, among others, a flexibilization of the academic calendar to ensure that internships can be provided all year round. Furthermore, pilot programmes for the development of partnerships in training (e.g. dual training), will be supported.

This plan – or at least this part of it – should be actualized. Students alreadyreceiveannual industrial training, but we should aim at making this training better structured, more relevant, and more beneficial to all the parties involved. There are currently very many instances of students receiving training that adds nothing to their skills, either because the workplace is wrong, or because the timing is wrong. Besides, many organizations, rightly concerned with bottom lines, don’t restructure or adjust their operations so as to position the trainees for maximum acquisition of skills. The introduction of incentive packages would therefore be a step in the right direction.

Finally, just as industry is being taken to schools (through ‘real life projects’), it’s laudably envisaged in the BTVET Strategic Plan to bring school to industries. Organizations will be encouraged with incentives to train their own workers.This training will be total, imparting relevant theory as well as practical skills, and will be recognized by government. The highway construction foreman I have referred to above will therefore have his knowledge gaps filled, and will be equal to situations that require sophisticated engineering judgment.

The developments bode well for future youth employment and the national economy in general.

Nick Twinamatsiko: Structural Engineer, Kisana Consults.