What next after KCSE? Practical Skills training in the construction Industry

Opinion Piece on alternative training
Paper written for the Daily nation Newspaper supplement on Alternative Training titled “What next after KCSE?”

Published in the newspaper on March 12, 2015
Practical Skills training in the construction Industry

 

A record 30,000 people are expected to eventually be employed by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) which is involved in the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR). By December 2014, recruitment had already begun. Among those to be employed directly are masons, mechanics, carpenters, heavy construction equipment operators and electricians. This is just but one example of the heavy duty construction projects requiring practical skilled labour in Kenya. The construction sector growth has been on an upward trend over the last 10 years with this expansion related to new heavy investments in building and civil constructions that includes expansive housing developments, roads, sea ports, dams and railways. The new devolved government has also brought huge development projects to the grassroots. This is a stimulus for development and job creation in the economy. These prospects present a considerable challenge to the construction sector to increase capacity and output. Is the country in a position to meet the labour demands that arise out of the construction growth? Do we have enough skills to supply this market?

The “good doing (practical) skills” in Kenya are not only very rare and very expensive but also take time to train and impact the industry. This depletion of skills can be attributed to a number of factors including the sector’s lack of appeal as a career choice, poor prospects of career advancement among employees and the insatiable demand for white collar jobs among prospective trainees. The result is that demand for skilled labour at the practical level is very high compared to the supply of its graduates. This mismatch has devastating effects on the industry as it leads to very high costs of production by the limited available labour. In a recent research conducted on the need for qualified construction skilled labour force in the country, the lack of qualified practical skilled labour was exemplified in the experience of one frustrated contractor. The contractor on looking around for an experienced plant mechanic was told to wait for approximately 8 months when the mechanic would be available. The cost implications of the poor labour supply results to exaggerated returns on the skilled labour eg a good skilled mason who is a casual worker is paid Kshs 1,500 per day (approximately Kshs 45,000 per month) whereas white collar jobs in many other sectors have much less returns.

In practice the world over, the need for specialists in any one line of specialization dictates that you have a pyramid of skills whereby the higher on the pyramid you go, the fewer the specialists. The lower on the pyramid you are the more important is your support role to the one at the top of the pyramid.

In the construction sector for example one architect can comfortably service five architectural assistants who in turn can each service ten diploma building construction technicians. The technicians will service about five trades foremen each. Each foreman can service up to six fundis with each fundi having at least one and a half unskilled helpers/ casuals. There is no architectural project that can be implemented without the services (many hands) of the lowest level in the pyramid.
If the balance of skills is disturbed, then the market that requires these skills starts to suffer. And this is Kenya’s undoing in terms of skills gap in the construction industry. We have put more emphasis on the top skills (e.g. architects and engineers) than implementers which consists of all trades below them.

How then can Kenya rectify this skills imbalance? The Jubilee Government is right on track in helping revive the role of TVETS to increase the demand and therefore absorption rates for practical skilled courses. The National Youth Service program is also playing a big role in promoting the concept of the need and importance of practical skills. Promotion of apprenticeship programs by Government also presents a big opportunity in rectifying skills imbalance in the construction sector. In this regard, the role of the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) in facilitating skills training through the existing training levy fund is critical. Research has shown that the existing training cost reimbursement program managed by NITA has not generated market response in the construction that is adequate to correct the skills gap in the period it has been in existence. To improve this situation, partnership between NITA and the National Construction Authority (NCA) should be encouraged. NCA with its mandate over accreditation of construction workers and overseeing construction training will be helpful in ensuring that there is a working, effective and productive apprenticeship program for construction workers.

The privates sector too has a role to play in supporting the government in bridging the skills imbalances. Contractors employ the inadequate skills in the market and hence bear some of the cost of poor quantity and quality skills. Partnerships between private sector and Government should be encouraged to ensure apprenticeship programs succeed through reimbursing, tax deductions or paying some of the cost of attaching apprentices on private companies. In addition the construction companies can play an active role in making use of the existing training reimbursement program by NITA to improve skills capacities.

The construction industry is a key enabling pillar for Vision 2030. Unless the existing practical construction skills are dramatically increased, it will be difficult for the industry to play its role effectively in the attainment of Vision 2030.

By Kang'ethe J. W.
Technical Director
Sensei Institute of Technology