Using coding to bridge the skilling gap

Upskilling: As head of corporate engagements at Makerere University, Michael Niyitegeka noticed a gap in the skilling of students in Computer and Information Technology disciplines. He shares his journey towards bridging that gap.

What you need to know:

  • Upskilling: As head of corporate engagements at Makerere University, Michael Niyitegeka noticed a gap in the skilling of students in Computer and Information Technology disciplines.
  • He shares his journey towards bridging that gap.

Why did you think there was a skilling gap among students of Information Technology? 
In my previous employment at Makerere University, I saw quite a number of young ICT graduates struggling to find employment. As head of corporate engagements, I was charged with bringing industry into university. However, in my interactions with industry players, they decried the gaps in how we taught our students; we were not responsive enough to the changes, and therefore, there were several opportunities in the market we were not filling.

I tried a few things such as starting the Microsoft Innovation Centre in the university to use it as a source to equip young people with industry skills. However, I realised that the things I wanted to implement such as redefining and repurposing curricula to prepare students for the world of work, would not be easy to be kick-started in a university setting; university structures are not very easy to change so the gaps were not getting addressed fast. 

There was also a need for internship to be repurposed because students were going into the field but doing duties that did not enhance their skills such as replacing toner. 

When I stepped out in 2013, I tried working with the incubation hubs but quickly realised they were structured differently from what I was trying to do; most of them are co-working spaces. The trainings therein were also short (two to three days) yet I desired to deliver a structured and more intentional training programme. Such was necessary to address the gaps if we were to have an eco-system that works. 

When did the probable break come in sight?
In 2016.  I met two gentlemen; Michael Green and Pete Sampey who were working with Youth With A Misson UK setting up an ICT programme in East Africa with support from a sponsor. After our interaction, we agreed that what we needed was programmes training people for the work environment rather than another degree programme. That gave birth to a post graduate certificate at Clarke International University for fresh graduates because my presumption was that they needed soft skills.

However, I was completely wrong as they needed more because even what they should have possessed as per their transcripts was lacking. That was seen after giving them projects to handle. While our first programme gave birth to the School of Business and Applied Technology, we needed to rethink our model.

I started talking to the industry about what they wanted from someone they were hiring. The industry was very responsive because they were frustrated that one; Laboremus Uganda, had attempted to start an academy to train skill. As feedback came in, we refined our delivery and packaging. 

In 2018, three partners; Laboremus Uganda, Fontes Foundation and Clarke International University formed a consortium to solve this gap. The dream was to build a programme that is industry-driven. With support from Norwegian Agency for International Cooperation in 2018, Refactory was born in 2019.

What was the next step?
We started a foundational course meant to catalyse the growth of software engineering skills was developed. It was structured to run for three months and we were open to take on anybody from anywhere as long as they could express themselves in English. 

Nyitegeka (L) with some of the training participants. 

These went through a boot camp focusing on placing one in a software company as a software developer. In essence, it is controlled internship where we get real industry challenges and assign them to the students while the industry contributes by supervising and mentoring the students who are acquiring skills.

Why do you believe that coding is essential in today’s market?
Coding is just a component of the software engineering process. Software engineers are problem solvers and that calls for diversity of skills. Therefore, on a whole, software engineering is essential because it aids improved productivity in the work world. Software engineers develop products/solutions that optimise processes, which is critical to businesses and government. You are able to do more with less. 

How do you ensure that all the people you train actually get work?
Well, that is the assumption but if that were true, then we would not be seeing the current software engineer need globally. For example, in a study conducted by the International Finance Cooperation (IFC) of the World Bank, it is predicted that 330 million jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa will be digitised by 2030 and approximately six million jobs will belong to tech specific industry. 

The demand for talent continues to outstrip supply. Software engineering as an industry is beyond just writing code. This is because of the diversity of tools and technologies that are in use or being introduced. The job functions are changing by the day. At Refactory, we have been approached by companies in UK, Romania and Kenya asking how many developers we can put out. Of the close to 400 young people we have trained, more than 90 percent have found employment within six months of finishing.

How have you ensured that girls thrive in what seems a predominantly male world?
Our goal is to maintain a 30 percent admission but at the moment, we have an average of 27 percent graduating out of our programme. Interestingly, most of these did not have an IT background. We also have an active mentorship programme. Additionally, when we take people into the boot camp, they work in teams and within a short while, the females realise that they are not any different from the boys.

However, in case of challenges, we support them. That was the case of Joyce Atim, a mother in need of upskilling to provide for her children. Today, she works with Pivot Payment but also as a trainer with UN Women and her confidence is now enviable.
We are also working with institutions that support girls to get more girls in because previously, we used outreach initiatives that did not yield much. We also ride on the backs of female alumni to be ambassadors.

What are your future prospects?
My biggest dream is to have Refactory become a pan African opportunity because we are a young continent with significant opportunities but most of our governments are talking about technology and ICT without walking the talk. We have an opportunity to contribute to the global eco-system because software is the only export that does not meet a non-trade barrier. 

There is need to have a concerted effort, at a national level, to build capacity in these new disciplines and they can be vocationalised the way carpentry and tailoring have been.


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