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Lack of Practical Skills Blunts Quality of Kenyan Graduates

Published on Saturday 22nd May 2010 Lack of Practical Skills Blunts Quality of Kenyan Graduates

Kenya is missing out on big opportunities to export professionals due to the nature of its education system which emphasises more on theory than practical skills, a World Bank study says.

Service markets such as the US, Europe and the EAC region which Kenya targets to export its professional services are increasingly demanding practical skills, a development that is locking out thousands of Kenyan graduates.

This comes at a time when Kenya is weighing the possibility of increasing its service exports hoping to earn a significant fraction of the multi-billion shilling industry.

A study conducted by the World Bank and the Export Promotion Council (EPC) has established that education in universities and professional institutions is theoretical and pointed out the need to invest more in practical training.

The government-backed study warned that the local education curriculum concentrated more on imparting theoretical knowledge at the expense of practical skills, attitudes and values key in the labour market.

There is an over-emphasis on passing examinations as opposed to meaningful learning which is eating away the country's skills base by churning out half-baked graduates.

The study titled, "Assessment of Kenya's Export Potential and Supply Capacities in Selected Professional Service Sectors" is currently being disseminated by the EPC.

Professional services exports surveyed include accounting, architecture, engineering, legal services, ICT and IT related services.

The report says that standards are falling among small and medium firms especially in relation to architectural services.

"Kenyan architects generally lack international exposure and training received at university is largely theoretical," reads a section of the study.

This has made it difficult finding adequate and competent local staff prompting multinational firms to source staff from abroad.

Young professionals are supposed to undergo a two years of tutelage, undertake professional examinations and be registered before they can start practising but these conditions have largely been flouted.

"The unscrupulous practitioners undercut their fees and end up offering substandard services thereby eroding the standards in the industry," said Steven Oundo, chairman of the Architectural Association of Kenya (AAK).

It has emerged that unregistered practitioners are not undertaking continuous professional development programmes that are supposed to be monitored by AAK and are therefore not up-to-date with the changing professional trends and therefore end up offering incompetent services.

Clients in Kenya are partly to blame for the declining professional standards as they put a downward pressure on fees and do not demand high quality work.

AAK lacks proper structures to penalise those who undercut fees, which is attributed to the outdated Planning and Building regulations Act of 1968.

Mr Oundo said the rush to convert technical institutions such as polytechnics into universities has killed the supply of intermediary skills and lowered the quality of workmanship in the building and construction industry yet these skills are required in the construction industry.

Technical training in insurance has also been identified as wanting despite Kenya having comparatively the best skills set in the EAC region.

"Ultimately, there are some gaps that ought to be filled," said Ms Noella Mutanda, Head of Corporate Communications at the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA).

"We are working on a proposal to have insurance companies adopt risk-based supervision. However, insurance is very dynamic and companies ought to play their role in enhancing the technical capacity of their staff."

The study established that it is very difficult to find individuals with the required specialised skills thus companies spend considerable time with in-house training and sponsoring staff to attend courses externally.

For instance, PKF Kenya, an accounting firm, spends about 50 hours per staff member every year on education.

Retaining the staff after training poses a challenge to these companies as they are faced with the constant threat of polished staff seeking better fees elsewhere.

In the legal services sector, grasp of the law for most graduates is largely theoretical.

Qualified personnel are still few in the small firms while greater experience is demanded to effect work in this service export sector.

There are many lawyers in the country but few are qualified to export legal services because most have not acquired the international experience that can only be gained through internationally known firms.

Professional associations have been accused of being lax at aiding continuous professional training.

These trade support institutions have failed to boost the quality of their training programmes and are not as active in hosting international seminars to educate the industry and increase networking exposure as firms expect of them.

Service exporters feel that incentives in the form of rebates or tax exemption for firms or associations bringing in specialised professionals to train talent from local universities would avail the more specialised courses to a wider audience of professionals in Kenya thus uplifting the high-end skills base.

IT firms for instance hire local talent but are forced to spend a lot in training them in specialised technology areas, mostly in foreign countries, since local learning institutions only impart basic knowledge.

Trade in services is emerging as an important component in the country's export trade.

Kenya's service sector had an estimated market size of Sh192.5 billion ($2.5 billion) in 2008 excluding revenues from tourism, transportation and remittances, and employed about 73,000 people.

Exports of professional services alone accounted for 3.7 per cent of the total service sector amounting to Sh7.12 billion ($92.5 billion) in 2008 which is still relatively low when benchmarked against competing countries such as Egypt, South Africa, India and the UK and thus lacks the economies of scale to compete effectively.

It is anticipated that opening up regional boundaries to allow free movement of labour in the EAC would incentivise the services export sector by reducing the existing non-tariff barriers to enable it harness potential in current and new markets.

The Tanzanian market has particularly been identified as imposing many tariff and non-tariff barriers to Kenyan service exporters.

"We are moving towards establishing common market protocols in the EAC region which will ease the exportation of services and increase the sector's contribution as the country moves towards achieving the Vision 2030," said Titus Ruhiu, CEO, Kenya National Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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