By Farhiya A. Tifow, Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, AmeriCorps*VISTA
Today, Kenyans are heading to the polls to determine who will be the fourth president in what has been deemed the country's most historic election. Although there are a number of pressing issues in every Kenyan's mind for which they would like the next president to tackle; I would like to see a viable solution in what has been one of the most challenging issue for each of the elected governments since independence in 1963 -- job creation. Trying to explain the root causes behind an 80 percent unemployment rate for Kenyans between the ages of 15 to 34 years old might take me several chapters rather than a modest blog post! However, I do believe that as Kenyans (for those of us in the diaspora and at home) we must continue the job creation dialogue and emphasize the importance of skills training.
In the last seven months, I have been fortunate to serve as a full-time AmeriCorps* VISTA for a non-profit Brooklyn-based workforce development organization called Brooklyn Workforce Innovations, which provides sector-focused skills training to poor and low-income men and women in New York City. Each year, hundreds of men and women who face multiple significant barriers to employment walk through the organization doors looking for assistance and support. They are in search of the free skills training offered in a variety of industries including commercial driving, teledata cable installation and wiring, fine woodworking and assembly and film and television production that BWI offers. One-third of those served by BWI in 2012 reported that they were unemployed for more than a year prior to their enrollment. However, after a relatively quick five-seven weeks of skills training, they leave equipped with both the soft and hard skills that allow them to secure upwardly-mobile jobs. Recently, I was able to hear from one trainee who felt the odds were stacked against her before enrolling in a BWI program. She went on to tell me she has now "overcome those hurdles" and truly enjoys working in her great new job in NYC's growing film and television production sector.
Hearing this and many other transformational stories over the last several months has prompted me to wonder how such a model would work if it were designed for the Kenyan market and the impoverished communities within the country. There is no doubt in my mind that if successfully implemented, skills training programs that combine soft skills with technical skills would have an even greater impact in Kenya. Nevertheless, the mere existence of quality workforce development programs will not be enough. What we need are similar efforts and investments that pay close attention to the local market and the skills demanded by employers. The reason BWI's graduates are successful in finding family-supporting careers is because the programs they graduate from are developed to meet local sector-specific demands dictated by employers with certifications and skills that employers are looking for.
There are many existing industries across Kenya that could benefit from having an increasing number of skilled workers. For example, there are at least 200,000 jobs projected in the coming years through the establishment of Konza Technology City (Africa's Silicon Savannah), which intends to position Kenya as an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) investment destination in Africa. Additionally, the construction industry -- which has s created plenty of jobs for imported labourers rather than local Kenyans -- is another sector that merits investment so as to put unemployed Kenyans to work. The point is we must invest in our human capital. According to UNESCO, skills are vital for poverty reduction, economic recovery and sustainable development. Although these changes will not happen overnight, we must start the planning for change today.
As I eagerly await the results of today's election, my hope is that moving forward we will create and maintain the favorable partnerships needed between government, businesses and investors to make jobs a reality for many Kenyans.
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