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Education that makes workers shine

By Mike Mahigigi

Uganda lags while Kenya and Tanzania show simple ways to unlocking their potential

There is worldwide consensus that youth aged 14 to 30 years are the most potentially economically dynamic segment of any population. Unfortunately in Uganda, 50 percent of youth, especially females, are not engaged in income generating, paid or self employment.

Even among those who are employed, a recent World Bank study revealed that Ugandan workers are six and four times less productive than their Kenyan and Tanzania Counterparts, respectively.

The National Development Plan (NDP) has a detailed section on skills development that says Uganda’s labor productivity is low at 28% of that of Tanzania.

The NDP observes that inadequate technical and professional skills among Ugandans drive employers’ preference for expatriate personnel. Public concern and fear expressed in various media projects Uganda as a country of low skill count.

Low skill count means lack of competence which means low production of goods and services both in sufficient quantity and quality.

The low labour productivity is due to inadequate vocational education and training. Compared to general education, VET as it is popularly called, is more inclined to the world of work. It has come to assume the name of education for work or career education. Unfortunately, Uganda has not developed VET strongly enough.

Lessons from elsewhere

VET remains a strong force in the super industrial state of Japan, the superbly growing economy of China and other Asiatic emerging markets, such as South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Israel in the Middle East.

These countries, which are known to have the world’s most productive workforce, have committed and sustained superior investment in VET. It is recognised as key among the factors that have contributed to and sustained their unique and rapid industrialisation, fostering higher productivity and scaling down the level of unemployment.

Israel, which has become a world icon in agricultural and infrastructure technology, commits 50% of her general education funding to it.

Countries like Jordan, Tunisia and Sri Lanka have gone as far as creating full-fledged ministries for VET.

Mauritius’ leading productivity on the African continent is strongly derived from heavy investment in VET. It has an elaborate program, coordinated and regulated by its Industrial and Vocational Training Board (IVTB), an autonomous institution which is a centre of excellence.

VET has supported the country‘s thriving textile, tourism and sugar industry, the pillars of her economy. Since the 1990s, Mauritius has enjoyed full employment.

Tanzania is among African countries that have recently prudently put substantial investments in VET with positive results. It established the Vocational Training Act in 2008 and created an autonomous institution, the Vocational Education and Training Authority (VETA) to provide the necessary coordination and regulatory oversight.

VETA has established an effective supportive institution, the Vocational and Technical Teachers College, to equip the system with the required   managers, curriculum developers, and high quality instructors. It runs a highly successful Training Levy as a key source of funding. VET is now steered by the changed Ministry of Education and Vocational Training.

For Kenya, the situation would appear obvious given the increasing presence of her citizens in various occupations in the region, making her workers well sought after in the hotel/tourism, manufacturing, agriculture, energy and infrastructure in the Common Market countries, plus Southern Sudan, South Africa and Botswana. This is not by accident. Kenya invested heavily in VET in the 1970s/80s.

Kenya’s ingenuity is further illustrated by the bold action it took last year to put in place a US$60 million Youth Employment Initiative. With World Bank funding, it targets 11,000 youths to acquire employable skills through 6 months attachment to selected business and industry. This is modeled on a similar and highly successful youth employment initiative in Canada in 1997.


Ugandan workers need skills, knowledge, attitudes and work habits that will enable them to perform tasks effectively. They need VET, which is hands on, action based, and performance driven compared to theoretical academic education.

The government’s interventions that target employment creation among the youth can only make full and a lasting impact where a large portion of the population has relevant skills.

People equipped with relevant skills are more likely to benefit and effectively utilise opportunities from the government’s financial credit schemes.

By equipping the disadvantaged and marginalised part of the population with premium skills, VET can bridge the equity gap.

Apart from the youth, VET can provide new work avenues to those who drop out of work and productive life for one reason or another. They could be the disabled, the retrenched workers, the demobilised soldiers, the retired but not tired, and the rehabilitated social delinquents.

Through skills upgrading, including workshop management skills, VET can assist to re-organise, modernise and add value to the so many, but not so orderly, roadside, makeshift  workshops and garages  around the country.

Contrary to beliefs that it is static, close-ended and does not offer opportunities for advancement, it is highly progressive as it can be made open ended for beneficiaries to reach greater heights of education and achieve highly rewarding careers.

It is critical in the transfer of technology and development of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) that are renowned for employment creation. It   supports rapid industrialization.

Uganda would be earning higher remittances if those going for kyeyo had adequate training. Apart from a few professionals like doctors and paramedics, financial analysts and other specialists, most of Uganda’s labour exports, kyeyo, lack relevant skills and as such, face the risk of exploitation and poor remunerations.

Given Uganda’s good education system coupled with fast growing economy, serious investment in VET can make the country the hub of skilled labor in the region.

Lack of skills is a major cause of laziness and the rise of unbecoming social ills and crimes in society, such as drug and alcohol addiction, prostitution and theft. People with relevant skills tend to engage in useful, productive and profitable activities. They are employees, self-employment, or searching for such opportunities. They have no time for redundancy.

If a country has low skills, its products are inferior and cannot compete effectively with those from higher skill counterparts. It cannot innovate. Its labor market is distorted because the supply side is warped.

What needs to be done

Today, the government runs VET as part of Business Technical Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) department headed by a commissioner in the Ministry of Education and Sports .This comprises four mainstream vocational training centers and a number of community polytechnics. There are also companies that run their own vocational or enterprise based training as it is technically called. Some private training providers, including faith based organisations operating under their umbrella organisation, UGAPRIV cater for approximately 1000 training centers.

It is estimated that 45 percent of VET in the country is delivered by private providers. Many informal vocational training centres are unknown and registered.

VET under such private providers is generally weak, fragmented and providers lack the required inputs like adequate infrastructure, competent instructors, quality learning materials, training equipment and tools.


VET also faces stigma, institutional weakness, and a low resource base.

Compared to general education VET has a strong inclination towards manual work. Traditionally, it has been close-ended with little opening for the recipients to advance to higher levels of education and in that way improve their social status. As such it suffers great stigma and is wrongly despised as an inferior form of education; meant only for the lower status and failures.

It is not only in Uganda that, VET suffers this stigma. It is a worldwide phenomenon.  In Africa, it was aggravated by the colonial administration which designed it exclusively for the natives as they called us. It is   amazing how some post-colonial governments promptly got rid of the vocational aspect in the post-independence education curriculum. Even today many parents will only consider VET on failing to obtain preferred academic admission.

South Korea and China are overcoming stigma by diversifying and enriching the curriculum content so that recipients gain access to tertiary and university education.

Women need to be involved as they are largely represented in the weaker skill domains.

Successful VET, the world over, is guided and empowered by a strong and coherent legal framework, led, coordinated and supervised by strong, modern and effective institutions.

Uganda’s parliament passed a new Law, the Business, Technical, Vocational Education and Training (BTVET) Act in 2008. This is a milestone because for a long time VET operated under a weak legal framework including the old and narrow Industrial Training Decree of 1972 of former president Idi Amin’s days which is held partly  responsible for keeping VET inadequate.

The Ministry of Education and Sports with renowned and proven capacity in managing the educational sector in the country is the appropriate custodian of VET. However, given the broad scope, widespread and fragmented providers, and required extensive guidance, VET needs the drive of an autonomous institution to coordinate and oversee it.

High cost

VET is generally more expensive than general education and requires a strong source of funding. It requires appropriate infrastructure, low ratio of trainers to learners, costly learning materials, training tools and equipment. Key donors shun it reasoning that it has low rates of returns.  This has left the government to fund it.

Reforms are necessary to get other actors on board. The public and private sector partnership would be useful. This can be done through Private Sector umbrella organisations, such as Uganda Manufacturers Association, the Federation of Uganda Employers, UGAPRIV and the NGO Forum.

Some countries that have achieved relative success in VET, have implemented it by imposing training levies. Tanzania runs the Skills Development Levy (SDL) in which 6 percent of a company’s total payroll is collected from employers of more than 6 people. Kenya too has a training levy. Uganda’s new Act provides for a levy. If well sensitised, employers would see the sense in paying the levy.

Finally, the status of VET can be uplifted and sustained by re-branding and marketing it extensively to the wider society as a strategic tool of development.


Mike Mahigigi is a Human Resource and Institutional Development Consultant. Phone: 0772439715. Email:

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