Skills gap crisis: how industrialists struggle to mitigate the problem


Dar es Salaam. Njombe Region in the Southern Highlands of Tanzania has a lot of potential, thanks to its many natural and historical attractions. Here lives a man whose vision is to design a special wedding car in the form of an aircraft.

Known in the region as the ‘Archimedes of Njombe’, he has invented various machines that have so far made a difference in the lives of many people in the region.

For starters, he invented a machine that simplifies farm work by making it possible for one person to spend only half an hour planting a five-acre farm instead of a number of people in doing the same job for two days as well as a 200-egg capacity solar powered incubator.

The 25-year old Elia Mkongwa was recognised in 2015 and given the Best Innovator Award by a Nairobi-based Youth Talent Centre.

Here is an innovative young person who owes his skills and ingenuity to the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) and the Mbeya-based centre under the Vocational Education Training Authority (Veta).

He says: “I have many ideas and models that I plan to implement.”

However, Mwakonga’s is a very unique story in an environment where there are complaints about shortage of required skills both for salaried jobs and self-employment.

With over 800,000 individuals entering the labour force in Tanzania each year, according to the World Bank (WB), there is an urgent need to make educational reforms aimed at ensuring prospective workers have the necessary skills. The purpose, it is argued, is to enable the fresh graduates secure jobs and grab business opportunities.

The issue of skills gap has been at the centre of the debate for quite sometime now. Reality on the ground shows that the problem persists.

The mismatch: What employers need, what universities offer, level of investment in skills development

The 2014 study by the President’s Office Planning Commission reported that about 80 per cent of the current available job opportunities rely on science and mathematics related programmes.

However, the study says the pass rates at Ordinary Level and Advanced Level were lowest in Mathematics and science subjects.

Government funding too, through the Higher Education Students’ Loans Board (HESLB), stands such that between 24 and 30 per cent of the money was channelled to applicants of science programmes, while between 70 and 76 per cent went into social science programmes.

Admission of students to higher learning institutions – through the Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) – were such that 20.5 per cent pursued science programmes (such as engineering, medicine, mathematics, sciences and ICT), while about 79.5 per cent study social science programmes ( such as Language, political science, public administration, law, mass communication and sociology.

Through these observations it is easy to see the existing mismatch between the needs of the labour market (by occupation) and government efforts in terms of funding (investment) and enrolment (admissions.)

Priorities in income generation

The study also revealed that a good number of graduates were more for salaried jobs rather than going for self-employment, whereby the former category formed 79 per cent and the latter 17 per cent.

On duration of finding first gainful employment, the study found out that about 44 per cent of graduates took about a year or more to find a job. This implies that most graduates were ill-prepared for the labour market, in terms of competence, and the fact that there are more job seekers than existing opportunities.

The study suggested the inclusion in the education system of life skills and enhancement of communications skills together with the consolidation and expansion of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) system.

It quickly adds that modern age requires so much soft skills, which remain inadequate in Tanzania.

During interviews with The Citizen, it was found out that employers, besides acknowledging the presence of the problem, use a range of strategies to address skills deficiencies. The strategies range from hiring new workers, offering in-house training to staff, using high-skilled expatriate workers, or outsourcing professional services.

Through its Graduate Trainee Programme, for example, where graduates are taken from across universities and enrolled in a year-long specific-job training programme, Coca-Cola Kwanza has been able to groom hundreds of young graduates in line with the company’s businesses. Most of these graduates are employed by the company upon completion of the programme.

The firm’s human resource manager Neema Kingson says in order to get competent manpower there was a time when they had to ignore skills competence and rather focus on attitude among the job aspirants.

“It is costly when you just hire someone simply to cope with the country’s labour laws, as you later have to train them so they will perform as per your expectation,” she says.

Certified, still unqualified

Currently, there is a 96 per cent possibility of Tanzanians to land jobs advertised by Acacia, one of the largest gold producers in Africa, thanks to the interventions it took to support skill development in the country. Eight years ago, the company was facing an acute shortage of both professionals (mining engineers, geologists, process meteorologists) and artisans (welders, heavy duty mechanics.)

“There was a big gap to be filled in as far as artisans were concerned,” recalls Ms Janet Reuben, who is the company’s general manager handling organisational effectiveness.

This was the case though there were artisans who graduated from Veta centres but they were not able to meet Acacia’s standards.

The issue prompted Barrick (now Acacia) to partner with the then Tanzania Chamber of Minerals and Energy (now Tanzania Chamber of Minerals) and AngloGold to introduce a new $2 million programme- Integrated Mining Technical Training- in 2010 under Veta Moshi- aimed at filling the gap.

“As a Tanzanian I felt very sad because here’s a person who has a certificate with flat A’s but couldn’t truly do the job,” noted Ms Reuben.

A total of 708 artisans have graduated in the programme out of whom 402 were recruited by Acacia.

In September last year Acacia passed the responsibility of conducting the programme to Veta, but it will continue to provide funding for it, according to Ms Reuben.

Flour milling is a booming business in Tanzania, but there are no programmes aimed at producing people with skills in the trade.

“This is the heart of our business,” says Maryam Bayumi, Group Human Resources director at Bakhresa Group, referring to Said Salim Bakhresa & Co. Limited, which specifically deals with milling business.

The company’s main business is flour milling using advanced and state-of-the-art technologies. For the firm to be able to produce high quality products there are skills which are required. “Getting them (millers) in the local market is difficult,” says Ms Maryam. To address the problem, the company has entered into partnerships with institutions that offer milling courses.

These are the UK-based National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers (Nabim) where the firm’s staff enrol for distant learning courses and the Kenyan-based African Milling School, where the company sends its staff every year for studies.

The ratio of expatriates to locals in the company’s work force is currently 3.5 per cent. “The ratio,” notes Ms Bayumi, “has been decreasing thanks to the interventions that we have been taking to address the issue of skill gap among our local staffs.”

Partnership is the key

As one of the ways that can help mitigate the current skills gap between universities and industries the partnership between the two has been identified to play a crucial role if fully utilised. “Partnership is the key,” notes Acacia’s Ms Janet, “this will not just improve the quality of people to be employed but building self-employment skills among young people as well.”

Besides Veta, Acacia also partners with the College of Engineering and Technology (CoET) at the University of Dar es Salaam. The partnerships also intends to make sure that the curricula are up-to-standard.

On occupational health, the company went into a partnership with Muhimbili University of Health and Allied Sciences (Muhas) in efforts to get competent occupational health experts.

Ms Reuben believes that the government can play a big role in ensuring that there are “serious and working” partnerships between universities and industries. One best way of doing this is to require industries to have sustainable and functional linkages with universities.

Her other proposal is having simulators that students who lack practical skills of their respective fields of study can go and practice.

“It’s a matter of policy,” says Ms Reuben, “instead of blaming universities for being too theoretical, businesses should help tackle the problem at its source.”

Where does the money go?

Skills Development Levy has long been a bone of contention between the government and the private sector.

Established under the Vocational Education and Training Levy Act (2001), the levy makes it mandatory for every employer (with the exception of government departments and nonprofit public institutions) to pay the levy of six per cent of their wage bills (payroll). Following an outcry from employers, the government in 2016 proposed a reduction in the Skills Development Levy (SDL) from the current 5 to 4.5 per cent.

The Association of Tanzania Employers (ATE), however, has been demanding a further reduction to two per cent saying that the levy does not fully benefit the private sector and that only two per cent of the total goes to finance the intended purpose. The levy was aimed to improve skills which are needed by the private sector.

“I think there is room for making employers see value from the use of the levy,” Ms Bayumi notes avoiding to make judgement that the levy isn’t used as it was supposed to. “We pay almost a lot of money per year, where does this money go? I think there is a need for more transparency.”

Prof Emmanuel Mjema is a Rector of the College of Business Education (CBE). He says as member of academia he cannot outrightly dismiss ‘claims’ that they produce people that do not match with the requirements of the market.

He thinks that there are “unnecessary exaggerations”. “I think there’s a problem,” he says, “To compare a fresh graduate with a person with ten years of experience doesn’t make any sense.” Prof Mjema reveals that the process of developing university curriculums involves employer and market studies to establish demand.

Besides the employer and market studies, there are also stakeholders analysis conducted before the curricula are sent to National Council for Technical Education (Nacte) and Tanzania Commission for Universities (TCU) for approval. “I think employers don’t know what they really want,” Prof Mjema thinks.

Triple Helix

Prof Mjema insists on the concept of ‘Triple Helix’, that is, university–industry-government relationship- -as key to mitigating the skills gap problem.

The thesis of the concept is that the potential for innovation and economic development lies in a more prominent role for the university and in the hybridization of elements from industry and government to generate new institutional and social formats for the production, transfer and application of knowledge.

With experience, Prof Mjema says most employers are not willing to take advice from academia.

But this needs to come to an end if they (employers) are determined to develop pools of talents that can be useful for their business.

“It’s inescapable,” he says. “I think we need to keep educating each other on the importance of the three sectors to come together and find a common solution to the problem.”

Graduates hold mixed opinions on the issue. To people like Yunus Mwarabu, a recruitment and training manager with the Dar es Salaam-based Excellence Management International Co, a management consultancy firm, the idea of skills gap between universities and the labour market does not exist.

“At least not to me,” says the 2016-graduate of Bachelor of Human Resources Management from Mzumbe University.

“What I know is that every industry has its own way of doing things. You cannot expect universities to teach you these many ways. That’s where employee’s training comes in to fill the gap.” But to the chief host of a radio show at a local radio station, Mr Ezekiel Shamakala, the gap between what he was taught at university and what he does in his work is too wide. He attributes this to the absence of practical training and exposure to industries while at university.

“These,” says the 2016-graduate of Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication at Tumaini University Dar es Salaam College (Tudarco), “would have fully prepared me for the set of tasks I’m supposed to perform here.”

A no single actor issue

Mr Erick Shitindi, former permanent secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office (Policy, Parliamentary Affairs, Labour, Employment, Youth and the Disabled), told The Citizen that through initiatives like apprentice programmes, recognition of prior learning and internship programmes the government is taking the university-industry-government linkage seriously as part of addressing the skills gap problem.

“The issue cannot be left to one single actor,” he says during an interview with this reporter. “We make sure that we help to bring all possible actors together towards mitigating the problem.”

Contrary to the popular belief, Mkongwa, the “Archimedes of Njombe”, is not concerned with the lack of ‘skills’—a term that has now turned into a cliché– for he has plenty. “We have talent within and what we need is to accept home-originated innovations. Confidence and belief in our own people is lacking.”