The national skills agenda

The link between a skilled workforce and sustainable economic growth is evident across the world. Now, the need is not just for vocational courses as well as pure academic qualifications. We need a seismic shift that offers life-long learning opportunities to upgrade skills constantly to keep pace with technological innovation and, to sharpen the competitive edge in the global marketplace. Let’s have a look at progress.   

China has been transformed in recent decades and this is largely due to World Bank financed programmes – over $110 million has been spent from 1990 to 2005 – in Guangdong, Liaoning and Shandong Provinces. These provinces are part of China’s growth story – Guangdong is the engine behind the country’s export-led growth. Shandong’s economy is the 2nd biggest, just after Guangdong, while Liaoning is one of the most important industrial bases and Yunnan is a strategic border province and the “bridge” between China and Southeast Asia. For the past 30 years, China’s abundant supply of cheap labour has been driving the country’s economic boom.

Despite the clear success of the factory of the world, the overall level of knowledge and skills of China’s labour force is relatively low. Only half of China’s 140 million employees of urban enterprises can be classified as ‘skilled’, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security of China. While industries in China are shifting from low-skilled, labor-intensive to a more capital and skill-intensive pattern, the need for skilled workers is rising with investment in technical and vocational education and training said to fill the gap.

This position is opening up a number of possibilities elsewhere. As China’s export success has gathered pace the clamour for higher wages has grown – especially on the coastal regions. In fact, wages have doubled in some industries and this has pushed the search for cheaper labour to the Western Provinces and even overseas.

Emerging and developing economies have noted the link between skills and economic growth and, vocational training qualifications and programmes are developing. First, there is a need to build national policy and then, agencies to nurture and build momentum. National Vocational Training Authorities have been established in many countries, including Botswana (Botswana Training Authority – BOTA), Mauritius (Industrial and Vocational Training Board – IVTB), Namibia (National Vocational Training Board – NVTB), Tanzania (Vocational Education Training Authority – VETA), and Zambia (Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority – TEVETA).

Many of these schemes have been inspired by two outstanding models: the centralised Singaporean model and the dual system practiced in Germany. In Singapore, a National Manpower Council ensures that training is relevant to the needs of the labour market. In Germany, the dual system of vocational training allows for learning to take place in a vocational school and in an enterprise concurrently. Approximately, 70 percent of all school leavers, aged between 15 and 19 years undergo training under the dual system. This system links vocational training with the world of work – a job.

The key learning from these two vocational skills champions is to establish vocational standards out of a close link between industry and the training content and the resources to deliver. A National standard has to be constantly benchmarked against the best in International markets with a keen eye on innovation that should drive constant updating of content AND delivery technologies and tracking.

Back to Africa. Ghana has passed an Act of Parliament that establishes a Council for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (COTVET) which will have overall responsibility for skills development in the country. The Council is expected to establish an Apprenticeship Training Board to link non-formal and informal vocational training to the formal TVET sector.

Then, there is the Nigerian system which is suffering from poor facilities and inadequate training resources to capitalise on the huge potential within the country. Austin Bayem, a production technology engineer in Nigeria, stated that the promotion of technical and vocational education and training for industrialisation, economic development, wealth creation and poverty eradication demands policies and strategies that address the cross-cutting issues of quality and relevance of training, employability, collaboration between training institutions and employers, accreditation of training providers (in the formal, non-formal and informal sectors), assessment, certification, internal and external quality assurance of training programmes, funding, and instructor training.

According to him “This calls for a TVE system that is competency-based and employment led, with proficiency testing of learners and trainees as proof of competence. TVE should also be seen and acknowledged by all stakeholders as a valid passport to a well-paid job or self-employment or higher education and not as an alternative educational opportunity fit only for early school leavers, the less academically endowed or the poor.”

Overall, the lesson is that a country needs to learn from the best in setting up the right National Skills Policy for standards and training. A failure to do this will be measured in unemployment – especially amongst the youth – low productivity and, high dependence on foreign nationals to offer course materials and human resources. In parallel, Governments need to stimulate jobs in core sectors and extend this to the informal actors and the local SMEs. When business expands, the need for skilled workers increases and this creates a virtuous circle that underpins sustainable economic growth.

The skills drive has a much wider impact than the pure economic or GDP indicators indicate. Skills need to be seen in the context of the triple bottom line of social and environmental as well as economic impacts. After all, a skilled population will be more cohesive and whereas an economy that looks purely at overall GDP may focus on a single dominant industry such as oil or mineral extraction without the details of a diverse economy that embraces all regions and all industries that create and sustain employment for men and women alike.



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