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Students lack opportunities to gain practical skills

By People Daily
Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019
Esther Kamau and Francis Njooroge display their award for Efra, a mathematic tool for visually and hearing impaired students. Photo/PD/Wambui Virginia

By Jack Ngare         

On a warm morning, Pius, a graduate of Kenyatta University,   nervously prepares for an interview with one of the largest software organisations in the world.  

While he earned his degree in Molecular Biology, opportunities to do real scientific work have not been forthcoming. 

Being a reasonable student, Pius added coding to his skills set and landed a few coding gigs through friends. But the absence of opportunities for Pius to practice skills learnt in school reflects the reality of most STEM  (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) students.

Joe Studwell in his book ‘How Asia Works’ writes that critical learning in the most successful developing countries takes place outside the formal education. It occurs, instead, inside firms. While the importance of a university education is not in doubt, industry practice, the next critical step after graduation, has been neglected. 

The scenario gets darker for generations of students who graduated in Mathematics, Computer Science, Biology, Pharmacy, Engineering, Chemistry and even Medicine.  

Science-based industries have not risen-up sufficiently to provide internship opportunities. In fact, the current trend involves funneling our talents into other fields. Not that there is anything wrong with these jobs, but it’s the antithesis of the handoff between academia and industry. The transition from learning by learning, to learning by doing.

The state of affairs is eating into our chances for economic growth. In the Kenyan car market for example, imported Japanese brands are sold in every yard. The truth, however, is that beyond the importation, associated servicing and spares industry, little else happens to directly increase the deep skilling or GDP of the country, yet there lies massive potential in local manufacturing and assembling industries. The reasons are complex and this in in no way represents an unwillingness of stakeholders to act. But it is evident there is not enough effort being channelled towards rectifying the situation. 

One can argue that a lot of developed countries went through this phase. 

Although at a slow pace, Kenya has started her journey of transformation. Through organisations such as Microsoft’s Africa Development Centre (ADC) who are making a bet on countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, to hub their engineering effort, management and thought paradigm by stakeholders is set to bring the country a generational step change. 

While at it, we must bear in mind Studwell’s thinking on  what created the Canons, the Samsungs, the Huaweis and the Acers in Japan, Korea, China and Taiwan was the marriage of infant industry protection and market forces, involving subsidised exports and competition between manufacturers that vied for state support. 

This might prove difficult given that various treaties signed by Kenya on trade imagine a scenario where it is incumbent upon consumer organisations and government to seek tech services from organisations that hub their development and engineering efforts in Kenya. Wouldn’t this be an expanded field of opportunities for graduating students?

While technology is dubbed the growth engine of the next generation, a wider field to practice what is learnt will go a long way to make the engine run more efficiently which takes us back to the statement “learning by doing”. This would indeed transform the country to great heights of quality engineering.

The writer is the Managing Director, Microsoft ADC

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