Who in their right mind would choose plumbing over marketing? Only a fool

Carpentry

Listening keenly to the President Paul Kagame’s keynote address at the release of the 4th Integrated Household Living Conditions on Monday, I was thrilled to hear him comment on the lack of jobs for young people.

Speaking on the issue of youth unemployment and the role of vocational training in fighting it, he said “We fell short on the creation of non-farm jobs. This may help explain why university graduates have the highest unemployment rate; almost six times the national average. We can’t allow this worrisome trend to continue”.

President Kagame continued: “There are ways to address this problem. Different ways. One of them is if we really continued to invest heavily, for example, in TVET”.

(Watch President Kagame’s complete speech here)

TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) is, I believe, the single most important weapon against the scourge of unemployment that has caused so many problems across our continent.

And to be honest with you, nothing scares me more than the sight of able-bodied young men (and women) sitting on the roadside, doing nothing but sharing alcoholic drinks and playing cards.

When I see them, I imagine a ticking time bomb that will blow up in all our faces if nothing is done. We saw the explosion during the Arab Spring. The xenophobic attacks in South Africa were a symptom of the issue and here in Rwanda, the Interahamwe militia was composed mainly of jobless youth.

There is nothing like boredom, unemployment and the lack of clear opportunities for social advancement to create a class of nihilists waiting for a chance to burn everything down, both figuratively and literally.

TVET institutions and programmes give young people a skill set that can put food on their tables and money in their pockets.

It can help create an artisan class, a group of people that we simply don’t have enough of in this country. I’m talking about properly trained welders, plumbers, electricians, mechanics, carpenters, watch repairmen, cobblers and metalworkers. For too long, we’ve had to either import trained labor from our neighbours or had to do make do with shoddy workmanship from our own people.

Let us not be mistaken. Building TVET’s across the country will not magically transform everything. TVET’s are not the silver bullets that will slay the unemployment monster. There are a lot of things that must be done before we see that happen.

Firstly, we need to do something about the ‘university’ culture in this country. We need to move away from the worship of the ‘kaminuza’ (university) and its ivory tower siren call and celebrate the blue-collar worker.

But that will only happen when a blue-collar career is seen as a viable option for someone who wants to own a home, a car and put their children through school. I mean, even if a senior six student loves carpentry as long as they qualify to study statistics, for example, in university, they will choose the degree programme over carpentry course in a TVET institution because they will earn more as a statistician than as a carpenter. For at the end of the day, it is all about the money.

Money. Or, should I say, the lack of it is the real reason that vocational training is not seen as the first choice for graduating high school students.

But that isn’t set in stone; blue-collar work shouldn’t be equated with low wages. In fact, in the United Kingdom and Germany, plumbers earn pretty good wages. As do bricklayers, electricians and mechanics.

Why is this? Probably because they are treated as a professional class akin to lawyers and doctors. Like doctors, they have regulatory bodies that give them certification.

You cannot wake up and become a plumber just because you know to fix a pipe. You cannot become a mechanic because you’ve changed a battery before. You have to go to mechanic school, take an apprenticeship, pass a test to get certified and then, and only then, can you call yourself a mechanic and sell your services to the public.

What such a tedious training and certification process guarantees is the professionalisation of a trade. With professionalisation comes unionisation and regulatory oversight. And because charlatans are gotten rid of public trust increases and better wages follow.

I’m not saying that we should wake up and prohibit all non-professionals from working, what I’m saying is that there needs to be a roadmap for the professionalisation of a number of blue-collar jobs.

The government can start by, for example, helping Kigali plumbers create a union or even a cooperative of their own. Such a cooperative would have certain minimum entry test. This cooperative would then be given preferential treatment when it came to government tenders and other lucrative gigs. As a result of this preferential treatment more and more plumbers would want to become members of the co-op simply because of the better pay and conditions its members received. Eventually, after a critical mass of Kigali plumbers was reached, membership of the cooperative could then become compulsory. Such a cooperative would be charged with ensuring standards, minimum prices and issuing operating licenses.

With good, guaranteed wages and public respect (which is a hugely important social capital in this country), more people would consider blue-collar careers. That’s just my two cents.

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