'Just enough' education in Kenya

Read time 4min 10sec

Research reveals that which we do not know, but more often than not, it also confirms our fears.

Kenyans have always suspected the education system of producing excellent cramming students, but few problem-solvers. Managers and supervisors have been left to draw their own conclusions after seeing the mismatch between what applicants learn at university and the output in the workplace.

Interns join blue chip companies with perfect grades and exemplary schoolwork, some having been on the dean's list for four years, but they struggle to continue with that stellar performance once they join the workforce.

Ken Macharia, ITWeb's Kenyan columnist

Interns join blue chip companies with perfect grades and exemplary schoolwork, some having been on the dean's list for four years, but they struggle to continue with that stellar performance once they join the workforce.

Universities and colleges receive the lion's share of the flak from managers for producing half-baked graduates. Others say the syllabus is outdated and not aligned to current market needs, while older managers put the blame on generational differences.

Mismatch: Education, workplace skills

These suspicions have now been confirmed by a survey, commissioned by the Kenya ICT Board and carried out by the International Data Corporation (IDC). The IDC survey looked at the overall ICT market in Kenya, including key indicators of ICT growth forecasts, IT spend by vertical segments, and the vendor ecosystem.

Internet penetration and usage, both at the residential and corporate level, was also included in the survey, and was benchmarked against other countries, including SA, Rwanda, Egypt and Nigeria. Thanks to government efforts and a vibrant private sector, Kenya compares favourably on most indicators.

However, the skills survey showed the real handicap of the Kenyan ICT industry.

My first employer after university made a casual observation of all interns she hired. We lacked analytical skills and our problem-solving capacity was wanting, she said. But she noted that some interns adapted faster than others. The company employed this special lot after a few months, but not before they went through a gruelling learning period.

The skills survey confirmed my former employer's observations. When asked about the skills they thought graduates were lacking in or were particularly strong in, 41% of employers surveyed said new graduates lacked project management and innovative thinking skills. A third said their graduates lacked problem-solving skills.

In the next two years, Kenyan universities and colleges will need to see 18 000 IT professionals graduate in order to adequately meet the demand in the market. While institutions of higher learning can meet the demand by numbers, the supply is tilted towards hardware, networking and IT administration skills.

Demand versus supply

The demand for IT project managers is highest followed by software development skills. A third of organisations interviewed said finding skills in enterprise processes and IT project management was extremely difficult. In contrast, getting Internet-related, hardware and networking skills was quite easy.

“A quarter of the organisations surveyed said they were not satisfied with the quality of IT professionals from educational institutions in Kenya. Furthermore, a third of companies have contracted, or plan to contract, external providers to manage the skills shortages,” said Francis Hook, IDC regional manager, during the presentation of the findings.

“Mobility of highly specialised IT professionals is high, in and out of Kenya. This significantly impacts business and IT operations and performance,” adds Hook.

The survey tried to identify the reasons for the skills shortage. A lack of adequate investment in the education sector was the overarching cause, as identified by the respondents. This has resulted in infrastructure constraints, a scarcity of experienced faculties, and a shortage of technology teaching skills.

To be fair to the Kenyan education system, employers in different countries also say their graduates are not adequately prepared to handle the ever-changing demands of the workplace.

Computerworld UK reports that most computer science and IT students need additional skills in business processes, especially in accounting and finance, after graduation. Managers interviewed also identified experience with enterprise systems integration as a skill that needs to be developed after university.

Speaking at a recent CIO conference, in Nairobi, one IT manager of a university said that while universities provide the basic theoretical framework, requiring students to take industrial attachment as part of their coursework helped them appreciate business processes and outlined what is required of them.

Perhaps the solution lies in IT companies taking a proactive decision to train and induct fresh graduates. Seven Seas Technologies, a local IT company, is reaping the benefits of addressing the skills gap through its graduate training programme. Not only is the company absorbing qualified candidates, but it has also become a net exporter of skilled IT manpower.

Education, after all, should not end at the graduation square.

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