By JANE MWANGI
A few weeks ago, a group of young men went into the compound on Enterprise Road in Industrial Area where the offices of Gearbox are located.
Most of them have been working at Kamukunji, in the area where you can find a variety of items fabricated from metal – the boxes that we buy for boarders in school, wheelbarrows, pans and such.
At Gearbox, they are undergoing training on the use of modern tools that can enable them to replicate their best designs and creations and go into the kind of mass production that can enable them to sell more of their work.
The training at Gearbox is an attempt to answer a question that comes up often in discussions on the level of skills that we need as a country as we seek to create more employment for the youth.
The recently celebrated World Youth Skills Day, provides an opportunity to revisit those discussions and to reflect on the lessons we have learned so far.
When we started 2jiajiri, we had hoped that the majority of those that would join the program would be people in the business. We had hoped that the mtu wa chuma (metalworker) from Kamukunji, the plumber who is not too sure about their skills and the carpenter who wants to learn something new or different would be the majority.
That did not happen, and we found that there were a lot of young men and women who were looking to make a start in the world of work and looked to 2jiajiri for that opportunity.
There were, we discovered, needs at every level: young men and women who needed technical training, others who needed a small boost to get into the world of work and those who were working but felt a need to upgrade their skills.
For those already working, like the metalworkers at Kamukunji, their desire to improve their skills could be best expressed by one who makes hinges, for example, finding a way to replicate their best design and to then produce in mass.
Those are the ones at Gearbox currently, going through training that they will later put to use when we help put together a common working area.
Someone who typically makes hinges, for example, often wondered how they would arrive at a proper standard and then using their best design, work to replicate that.
More work along this line is going on at Proteq Automation, where they are learning to use computer numerical control machines, which take directions from a computer to manufacture a design of choice by controlling cutting, curving of shaping tools. Any design that can be represented into a computer model can be made from these machines.
This work, along with others with various organizations, has provided lessons that we can jointly reflect upon on this World Youth Skills Day.
First, it is important that interested players take a proactive approach to engage those interested in improving their skills. This requires close collaboration with the workers, like the artisans in Kamukunji now receiving training.
It is also important to approach this work as a good opportunity for business for everyone. The young men and women undergoing training certainly look forward to becoming better at their job and increasing their opportunities to prosper in business.
Second, it is important for policymakers and institutions like ourselves to work with their target audiences and to understand their needs.
This has been evident with our engagements with the three classes cited earlier – those who are already working, those who are ready but lack the tools and those who have left school and are looking to get into the world of work.
Without a good understanding of the kind of intervention that is needed, one may end up misdirecting ideas and resources. This will require the kind of insight that William Maluki of Gearbox had as he sought to create a pipe-bender, which would enable metalworkers in the Jua Kali sector to achieve bigger numbers at a cheaper cost, enabling mass production and more affordable prices.
It is the kind of work that can enable Kenyan technical workers to compete effectively with their counterparts. Why, for example, wouldn’t a battalion of skilled metalworkers from Kamukunji not be the ones to supply all the houses under construction with hinges, bathroom partitions, and window frames?
As we reflect on World Youth Skills Day, institutions need to feel challenged to make this kind of work possible. By enabling the development of technical skills and know-how, they can not only recruit new customers for themselves but contribute to the development of the skills this country needs.
Ms. Mwangi is the Managing Director, KCB Foundation.