Tuesday March 18 2014

Here’s how we can address skill gaps in the country

By John Muyonga

When I saw the article titled “Refocus our technical and vocational training” by Matsiko Kahunga in the Daily Monitor of March 7, I was eager to read it and hoped to find useful suggestions on this important subject. I was, however, disappointed with the article. In my opinion, the author did not provide any concrete thesis on the subject. In the article, Matsiko submits that vocational education is derived from a Latin word vocare which means to call, stating that “vocation is a calling, a divine ordination, embodying an advanced, high sense of duty and obligation, whose fulfillment is above ordinary material motivation”. He further states that “vocation is, therefore, not synonymous to skill, talent, trade, job, occupation, profession, career, or hobby”.

By his own argument, Matsiko contradicts this submission by making reference to the technical training in other countries. Clearly, vocational training has metamorphosed from whatever was implied by the Latin word and is aimed at providing the trainees with demanded skills, which can enable them make a living while addressing societal needs. The article does not provide any practical suggestions on what is required to strengthen vocational training.

For example, the article states that “making burgers in not food science and technology, as Makerere University was doing during the recent trade show”. It would be prudent for the author to clearly articulate what is negative about making burgers. It may be worth noting that companies such as McDonalds and KFC have made billions of dollars from burgers. Secondly, it’s disingenuous of the author to pick on one convenient example of whatever Makerere exhibited at the said trade show. This is a clear effort to trivialize the university’s capacity.

Makerere University has over the years demonstrated unrivalled capacity to skill students in the area of food science and technology. In the past few years, more than 20 different food products have been piloted on the Ugandan market based on work by students and staff of the university. Some of these are now produced at commercial level. These products include among others, soy sausages, soy yoghurt, soy milk, shelf stable smoked meat, bushera and ajono, liqueurs flavoured using indigenous plants, precooked beans, instant flours and breakfast cereal.

Makerere University scientists also designed a mobile food processing plant and the first unit was manufactured and has been used in different parts of Uganda to process fruits and vegetables in rural production areas. These are no trivial achievements, especially in light of the resource constraints the country faces.

Can the country do better in the area of vocational training? My answer would be certainly. First, I feel the most demanded skills are not necessarily the most complex. We still require good plumbers, good mechanics, good carpenters, electricians, great designers, among others. It is a shame that although we produce quality timber, we still have to import substantial volume of furniture because of the poor workmanship by our carpenters.

As a first step, there is need to identify fields in which we could benefit most by building our technological skills base. We need to develop relevant training institutions and provide the required training infrastructure, develop competitive training programmes and appropriate staffing. Without proper training, facilities and well trained and motivated trainers, let no miracles be expected. To address the obsession among Ugandans for degrees, it would be prudent for the training to be conducted at technology universities and that qualifications offered include degrees, among others - with emphasis on skills development. The training should also have a strong component of entrepreneurship to prepare the students for technology business careers.

Lastly, it is also important to appreciate the need for a strong academic foundation for later professional training. Schools, in my opinion, should contribute to development of a skilled society by providing the relevant foundation, through teaching of subjects such as mathematics, physics, biology, and others which are crucial for comprehension of technological disciplines.

I suggest, therefore, that school curricula seek to inspire children to appreciate technologically leaning careers and provide them with the necessary academic background. Schools should instill basic analytical, writing and numerical capacity which provide a basis for professional development. It would be imprudent to propose strengthening development of vocational skills at primary or secondary levels, at the expense of foundation subjects such as mathematics, physics, biology, among others.

The argument that we should consider school curricula change as a way of addressing skill gaps is therefore, in my opinion, questionable. However, delivery of different subjects in schools could be revisited to enable students appreciate their applicability in life.

Prof Muyonga works at the School of Food Technology, Nutrition & Bioengineering - Makerere University. hmuyonga@yahoo.com