Certification of ‘Jua Kali’ artisans a game-changer

jua kali

A jua kali tradesman at work at his shop on Landhies Road in Nairobi in May last year.

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

There are a handful of craftsmen so exemplary in their work that their services are sought nationwide despite their skills having been honed informally through an apprenticeship at the feet of seasoned professionals who trained them on the job.

Some are reputed to be the best mechanics, painters, masons, fitters and tailors that one can find, an illustration of what a powerful resource apprenticeship can be for training jobless young people, developing skills for national development and creating employment.

Unfortunately, such skilled workers can only be identified by word of mouth, a rudimentary yardstick for a labour market without a certification system to gauge the quality of skills for qualified workers who never stepped into a vocational school. This is a dilemma for both skilled workers and employers. 

First, it lumps all workers together, yet their levels of skill, knowledge and experience are different. Second, it makes it difficult to identify qualified and experienced personnel.

Selecting such workers in the 1950s and 1960s was easy because the individuals on the market were all formally trained and certified. Unfortunately, the vocational training system collapsed in the 1990s, and today, a greater percentage of workers in Kenya are likely to have trained informally or on the job.

The challenge then becomes: How does an employer tell a worker’s level of skill, or if they are skilled at all? And, other than referrals, how do informally trained skilled workers seeking employment demonstrate that that they are qualified?

This dilemma causes many employers to end up with poorly equipped workers. A popular website for home builders seeking referrals for qualified artisans in Kenya routinely posts works gone awry. Many have also rued hiring carpenters, masons, electricians and other workers who could not perform tasks.

Prior Learning Policy

It is in this light that the government must be lauded for establishing a Prior Learning Policy set to be rolled out by the Kenya National Qualifications Authority.

This will enable the grading of carpenters, cooks, drivers, masons, painters, plumbers and welders who acquired their skills and competencies informally against prescribed industry standards and learning outcomes.

Other than facilitating skilled individuals to access better paying jobs through a national database that the labour market can source available skills and competencies from, certification is an opportunity for workers who rose through apprenticeship to improve their capacities through formal training. 

In a society defined by the academic certificates one holds, recognition of prior learning will boost the esteem of a cadre of workers often dismissed by society, and by themselves as “jua kali” – a euphemism for second-rate or unqualified.

It will challenge them to regard themselves as skilled professionals who contribute to national development. Recognition that these workers can develop careers throughout their lives like those with formal training will be a boon for a more inclusive and equitable society. 

This will also be a useful planning tool for the government as it will point out skill gaps, which can be filled through purposed vocational training and apprenticeship programmes. If supported by employers, say in the construction sector where 55.9 per cent of firms struggle to find workers with desired technical skills, partnerships between the government and the private sector will enrich vocational training curricula and provide apprenticeship opportunities for thousands of young jobless Kenyans.

This model has been successfully implemented in Switzerland and other countries in the West. Our experience at PropelA, a project run by Swisscontact – a global nonprofit development institution – has demonstrated that employer-led apprenticeship systems where trainees spend 25 per cent of their time in class and 75 per cent gaining hands-on experience makes workers better skilled, better paid and, ultimately, more resourceful to their employers and the nation.

The writer is Country Director, Swisscontact


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