The Devaluing of so-called Blue Collar work is a mentality borne out of a contorted notion of education’s function in the society. One which prioritizes examinations and assessment scores over comprehensive learning of diverse disciplines. Further to this, the perceptions of boring old machines, dirty greasy overalls and smoke-filled factories have been sustained over time by more than just a rigid education system. The politics of national investments, value placed by corporates on college degrees, prestige bestowed upon white collar jobs, the ‘mystery’ of industry and assumed complexities of its functions and functionality have all greatly contributed to these myths.
The misconceptions about manufacturing have been compounded by society’s tendency towards a false dichotomy that is pegged on gendered occupations and privileged career spaces. These lock out many young people from readily available economic opportunities which are lucrative and accessible. Yet the truth of the matter is, outside of these long-held prejudices lies not only productive jobs for the thousands of graduates per year, but a proven solution for the economic and social advancement for our country towards industrialization.
Manufacturing Vs Services Sector
One argument that continues to propagate the above warped view, is that manufacturing is fast becoming obsolete, and that the services sector is taking over its functions. Because of this, emphasis has been laid on the ‘wow-factor’ of technologies and innovations presented by the services sector and the education curriculum has in turn underlined this by structuring courses that would ramp up the sector’s marketability. Subsequently, potential graduates are trained to aspire to jobs in blue-chip companies at the expense of manufacturing jobs, whether or not their abilities and talents match up.
But manufacturing is, in reality, not in competition with the services sector but its foundation and backbone. The relationship between manufacturing and services sector is more than symbiotic because, the former is quite critical to the commercial innovation in the latter. For instance, it is no coincidence that Finland, which stands a stellar example in Global excellence for Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET), is also ranked fifth in the World’s Most Innovative Economies according to Bloomberg’s 2017 Innovation Index. Some of the metrics used for these rankings were Research and development Expenditure, Manufacturing Value-added, and the concentration of high-tech companies in the country. The essential correlation of the two sectors and their interdependency is then clearly reflected in the rankings in which the country scored 83.26 out of 100 on a global scale.
Finland’s leadership in innovation is rooted in its commitment to the manufacturing sector especially in its investment in TVET. Their legislation reforms, for example, have allowed TVET Graduates to further their studies at University or applied sciences level and increased funding for the TVET institutions to ensure marketability and professional development.
As for Kenya, the TVET ACT 2013 was designed to address the job skills issue and, more so, to ensure an increased and sustained enrolment ratio of 20% by the year 2030. This is a ground-breaking move on the part of government to revamp our entire education system with a view of making the lives of our youth better.
However, legislation alone cannot address problems of perception and attitude that have dogged our curriculum and job opportunities for years. Industry needs to step in and demonstrate the worthiness of manufacturing jobs. Proactivity by local companies in adopting mentorship programmes that integrate on-the-job training and lifelong learning will go a long way in reshaping the thinking around manufacturing sector as a whole. Industry itself needs to introduce cutting edge technologies to their day-to-day processes to shun the image of traditional, obsolete, hard-labour machines and illuminate the tech-savvy aspect of manufacturing jobs. Some members of KAM are already doing this through the Association’s newly launched TVET programme in partnership with Government and GIZ.
Additionally, companies need to be vigorously involved in shaping the future of industry by playing key roles in the planning and design of TVET programmes to include a global perspective of manufacturing trends, in line with our unique needs as a country. This will change the current one-sided narrative, that the only entrepreneurship and innovation worth noting is ICT sector related. If we redefine entrepreneurship incorporating it in our TVET curriculum, then, we open up a universe of creativity that can only be positive for our economic future as a country.
Yes, legislation and allocated funding from government will spur the changes in TVET programmes’ ability to deliver quality training for graduates; but the onus also falls on industry to ensure that we value these jobs as much if not more than ‘white-collar’ jobs. We should be involved in the development of occupational standards, invest in building the skills that we would like our graduates to possess, make these jobs more lucrative and host open-days where we demystify our work and educate parents on the benefits of a thriving industry for their children. Investing in TVETs is not just about providing a few opportunities for some, TVETs are the only sure way to secure the future of this country, guaranteeing long term productivity, economic sustainability and inclusive growth.
The writer is the CEO of the Kenya Association of Manufacturers and the local representative for Global Compact Network in Kenya. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org