Let’s prioritise technical vocational training, technology upgrade

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Munyaradzi Mlambo Correspondent
As the nation forges ahead with economic revival agenda, the need to prioritise skills training and upgrading technology in key industrial sectors of the economy cannot be overemphasised.

Zimbabwe lags behind in adopting and using latest technologies in critical sectors of the economy such as manufacturing, mining, farming, medicine and others. At the same time, although the country’s universities churn out thousands of graduates annually, there is definitely a shortage of “people trained for work” to fill in jobs that will arise ahead of impending industrialisation.

The country is highly regarded on the continent for its vibrant education system that produces much sought after workers world-wide, but there exists a mismatch between this reputation and what is on the ground. This is because the country has focused more on producing degree holders who cannot deliver practically because they are not skilled for any job.

To correct this anomaly, Government should turn to non-college approaches such as vocational training and apprenticeship to produce a workforce relevant to the industrialisation goal.

While there exists a large number of vocational training centres in the country, most of these are now in a derelict state due to underfunding, plain negligence and deliberate lack of will on the part of Government to encourage vocational training. Remaining functional centres such as polytechnics are still using antiquated equipment to train students at a time technology has evolved.

In pursuit of the industrialisation and economic growth thrust, the Government must ensure enough funding for vocational education so that there are no skills shortages of carpenters, plumbers, boiler repairers and mechanics to work in industries.

As President Mnangagwa alluded to when he met heads of tertiary institutions, it is not about training many graduates, but training people for production. Vocational training has already proved to be an effective way to produce a hands-on worker. Europe’s biggest economy — Germany — is one country that bears testimony to the effectiveness of vocational training.

The resultant lower youth unemployment that country enjoys today has been attributed to a robust education system that prioritises vocational training. But it doesn’t come for free. The Germany government at one point committed US$3,5 billion, that’s a quarter of Zimbabwe’s GDP, to support vocational training because of its huge returns to society as a whole. And today Germany is exporting its success story to countries such as United States and Kenya with the US targeting to create a moon shot 5 million apprenticeships in 5 years starting last year.

This calls for greater financial investment which can only be achieved by creation of a synergy between government and the private sector to make sure more vocational training centres are set up and more students are enrolled and trained. The Government should identify key sectors in its quest to industrialise and prioritise development of skills required in these areas.

For example, farming will play a pivotal role in providing raw materials to manufacturing. Currently, there is an increase in the use of high tech equipment in agriculture in developed countries in order to increase yields and improve quality. As such, this equipment requires people who are able to operate it and can repair it when it malfunctions. Thus, it make sense for Government to apportion more funds to institutions such as Chaminuka Agriculture College to capacitate them to teach the emerging agricultural technologies. This will include buying equipment for training such as latest irrigation equipment and combine harvesters, retraining lecturers to be acquainted with new trends and even sending students to get advanced practical knowledge in countries such as Japan and Brazil.

By doing this, the Government will be consolidating the foundation set by Command Agriculture, a proven formula to increasing agriculture output. Lack of modern technology will slow down industrialisation efforts. Although Statutory Instrument 64 gave industries a breathing room to modernise their production lines, the struggle to upgrade technology is still monumental.

Upgrading technology is key in increasing industry capacity utilisation and productivity. The major challenge today lies in failure by industries to attract adequate capital to replace their outdated machinery. The task to search for capital shouldn’t be left in the hands of the private sector alone. The Government must also jump on board as success of private economic players translates to success of the economy.

Foreign direct investment remains one channel to get capital inflows and the Government must continue to explore ways to make it easier for investors to access the local market.

President Mnangagwa’s promise to review all investment laws is a great launch point. This should be preceded by benchmarking all investment policies with those that made countries such as the United Arab Emirates what they are today.

Like Germany, Zimbabwe should aim for vocational training to be deeply embedded in its education culture. The new curriculum must be hailed for putting more emphasis on practical approach in order to prepare children for future well-paying jobs set to arise due to industrialisation. The Government must also provide incentives to students who choose to pursue vocational careers like what it has done with STEM. This includes slashing of tuition fees, provision of grants and scholarships to students getting vocational training.

At the moment, vocational training remains an unpopular path to follow for students due to lack of opportunities and negative perceptions of such skills. Many students opt to study for degrees and diplomas that only lead to disillusionment in the end because nobody wants to employ them. This has dire social consequences. The vocational training mode can drastically reduce skills shortages and youth unemployment while at the same time increases industrial productivity and contributing to economic growth.

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