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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

How to develop Zimbabwean workers for the future

Article by Kevin Tutani

Various global researchers are convinced that the skills required by the world’s future labour force are biased towards STEM (science technology engineering and mathematics). Employees of the future will be in greater demand, if they understand artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, manufacturing, software and machinery development, among others. The STEM capabilities will also need to be balanced with employees who have soft skills such as critical thinking (analysis), leadership ability and emotional intelligence. Since the mentioned soft skills are already available in abundance, nations around the world are more concerned about how to develop more talent in STEM. A failure to promptly plan for the transformation will result in the ineffectiveness of any lagging economies. Such countries will increasingly lose competitiveness. This will translate into a growing reliance on foreign products and services, alongside increasing domestic levels of poverty.

Having realized the implications of such threats, His’ Excellency, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, created a government Ministry responsible for Skills Audit and Development. The Ministry, which will be under the leadership of Professor Paul Mavima, aims to take stock of the human capital capabilities in the country and areas where skills deficiencies may lie, with respect to the demands of the economy. In short, the duties of this Ministry entail the auditing of available national skills. Once the level of skills in the economy are known, the department will design channels and strategies on how more expertise can be developed, to fill any existing gaps in the economy.

In order to carry out a reliable audit, the Ministry will firstly need to send surveys to HR managers in the formal sector (both private and public institutions). The surveys should be able to provide details on both, available skills and existing gaps. An engagement of chief executive officers will also be helpful, as they have a clearer understanding of which employee roles could have been supported by the organisation but aren’t available because of local skills scarcity. Thereafter, surveys which interrogate the various productive sectors of the informal sector, may be rolled out. Unfortunately, informal sector data may have questionable reliability. However, if the interrogation is designed appropriately, the authenticity of the information will be improved. The nature of the country’s imports and exports of goods and services will also reveal the state of human resources in the country. A glance on exports of raw minerals, unprocessed agricultural commodities and imports of foreign tertiary education, healthcare (through foreign hospital visits), vehicles, machinery and other manufactured goods, will provide ample information on the current state of local capabilities. Once skills gaps are identified, naturally, the Ministry will have to work on a policy-paper which focuses on how to meet the gaps.

Although the above mentioned procedures seem so straightforward, they may not be as effective or helpful for Zimbabwe, since both economic growth and the local labour market have been, at several times, compromised by various factors (sanctions, inflation, currency instability, etc). Therefore, instead of focusing on surveys which analyse the state of skills and available gaps only, the Ministry may need to emphasize its efforts on the development of achievable and aspirational (desirable) national human resource goals. Information on available skills and gaps, although important, may not be effective or might be distorted, since it will already be compromised by the staggering education system, economy, labour market (which is mostly informalized) and emigration, as numerous citizens are now working in the diaspora. Thus, Policy responses which are strictly based on this information may be misdirected.

Below, elements of the required, desirable skills goals are explained.

In order to provide greater opportunities for advancements in employee skills, the likelihood of individuals to enter a lab, practice tertiary research (in the arts, commerce, science or technology) should be increased. Government investments, regulations, societal norms and access to opportunities should therefore be supportive of a growing possibility of this likelihood. In this regard, urban-rural and gender inequalities will also need to be consciously addressed.

Currently, Zimbabwe relies heavily on extractive industries (mining and agriculture) with very little value-addition occurring. However, in order to grow the economy, local employees will need to gain capabilities in manufacturing, science, technology and the development of modern services. Thus, there will be a natural need to increase the intake of STEM students in schools and at tertiary institutions (with a bias on technology and engineering). In order to achieve this, academic entry requirements at A Level and universities will need to be lowered, so as to accommodate a larger intake of students. However, assessment (examination) standards, need not be lowered. The issue of making university access for STEM studies, an exclusive preserve of the brightest students, will need to be re-evaluated. As more scholars study STEM qualifications, the economy will be better-equipped for global developments in the fields of STEM, through churning out a greater number of graduates. Since high schools and universities may have limited financial capacity to support this growth in student numbers, the government will need to make provisions through recurrent grants (especially to state schools and universities) which will support the endeavour. In China, for example, between 2012 and 2021, the country’s Ministry of Education increased yearly spending on higher education, from $24 billion to $47 billion. This type of government assistance is what enabled the country to support its unparalleled economic growth in the past few decades. Without capable human capital, that economic growth would have been stifled.
Due to the exclusive nature of STEM tertiary studies, the graduates from those fields may also find it difficult to secure employment outside their fields of study, particularly in the domestic labour market. Thus, the learners will also need to be capacitated for other non-STEM professional roles, in the labour market. In that regard, mandatory courses in administration, marketing and business communication, for instance, will succeed in reducing the risk associated with a mismatch in the labour market, when they graduate. This will also add to their effectiveness when they eventually become professionals. However, if local STEM graduates cannot find employment domestically, they are likely to offer their services in other countries, where they are in high demand. Once they emigrate, they will also be able to contribute to national development through their remittances to Zimbabwe.

Government will also need to keep records on the number of active tertiary research projects, nationally, each year. The data may track all ongoing research at PHD level. However, registration requirements (to notify of occurrence of research) should not be complicated or cumbersome. To make the records more comprehensive, they should also include professional (basic, applied or experimental) research being carried out by both private and public institutions. The expenditures made in these research endeavours will also need to be known. Keeping track of activities and expenditures in research will be a good basis for understanding whether the country is improving its commitment towards the acquisition of new knowledge, or not. Most robust economies keep records of these metrics religiously. The USA and China, for instance, are the greatest spenders, globally, with around US$720 billion and $441 billion in annual research expenditures, respectively, for the year 2020. As a percentage of GDP the US and Chinese R&D expenditures were an impressive 3.4% and 2.4%, respectively. In the case of China, to show its commitment, most of its research expenditure typically comprises experimental research, which is attributed to its dynamic state-owned institutions. Since they (USA and China) are the greatest spenders in R&D (innovative research and development), the countries also happen to be the world’s two largest economies. This goes to show that, for an economy to grow, or to sustain its expansion, there is an urgent need for it to continually grow its knowledge base. Chinese government and private institutions are regularly interrogating ways to provide better or new solutions to problems.

The number of students studying at PHD level within the country, will also need to be increased, through various incentives. Government subsidies for PHD students and their respective lecturers, with a focus on STEM, will also assist in realizing the greater numbers. The subsidies may include stipends, bonuses or housing (accommodation) incentives, among others. The advantage of having greater numbers of PHD graduates, is in that, they will be more capable of bringing tangible changes to society through their advanced and usually practical skills. Opportunities for them to collaborate and share knowledge with other foreign experts, will also increase. If the government has limited funding capacity, emphasis may be placed on the technology and engineering curriculum, ahead of the others within STEM.
The bilateral relationships which Zimbabwe shares with the highly skilled nations of China, Russia, the UK, and so forth, should be translated into knowledge transfers, as much as possible. Local university faculties will need to be paired with various global leaders in research, through partnerships with top foreign universities. One of the President’s top requests during foreign visits, should be to negotiate for collaborative opportunities in research and technology transfers, from the industries and educational institutions of the sophisticated northern economies. China is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter of cars. For it to get to that height, it had to initially request for knowledge transfers from Russia, to assist with the design of engines, gearboxes and vehicle body parts, in the 1950s. Beijing requested the assistance whilst it was still a poor and underdeveloped economy. It could have opted to emphasize aid and debt from Russia but it chose to secure knowledge for its vehicle manufacturing industry instead. The example serves to show that, in the future, Zimbabwean political leadership must continually place emphasis on human capital development, in their interactions with countries of a higher development status. This is because industrial capabilities provide greater rewards than debt or donor funds.

As STEM graduates become increasingly available in the country, it will eventually be noticeable that rural residents will feature poorly in those areas (STEM). This is generally a result of various factors which mostly have their roots in rural poverty. Most research has confirmed that a human brain is 90% developed by the age of 5. Rural infants, owing to their lack (of food, professional healthcare, etc) will therefore generally have limited cognitive capabilities, for the rest of their lives. The deprivation leads to delayed intellectual and faculty development from infancy, childhood to adulthood. The poor rural conditions (lack of electricity, infrastructure, etc) also imply that school teachers who serve there, are usually both the least qualified and least motivated. If the government is to address this, it will need a cocktail of rural education funding measures. These may include, free meals for children in the early childhood stage (grade zero up to grade 4, for instance). Rural teacher recruitment will also need to provide more lucrative packages (pay, fringe benefits, etc), when compared with job offers in the cities. Textbooks and other educational resources will need to be thoroughly supplied. Alumni from rural schools will also need to be continually encouraged to return to their former educational institutions to provide material and inspirational support.

The country will indeed need a philosophy (culture) of active school alumni. Professionals should be encouraged to serve their former schools and universities in cash or in kind (whether rural or urban). The more learned among them, should embrace the possibilities of being visiting professors or fellows of their former universities. Citizens in the diaspora will also need to be encouraged to flock back to the homeland and share their expertise.

For there to be rapid “brain gain”, foreigners who have PHD qualifications should be seamlessly integrated into Zimbabwean society, especially if they are practicing professionals. They should ideally be granted permanent residence status or citizenship.
In order to increase the pace and vibrancy of R&D ( innovative research and development), the country will also need laws and structures which support venture capital activity. “Start ups” (emerging businesses) with various innovations should find accessible channels through which they can raise capital to launch their businesses on a commercial scale. In that regard, legislation may oblige registered financial institutions (banks, insurance companies, etc) to have between 2-5% of their prescribed assets, in the form of “start up” (venture capital) investments. However, intense checks and balances will need to be put in place, to ensure that the legislation does not become a haven for uncouth executives, who may end up supporting their own businesses or kith and kin, clandestinely through the channel. Registration of intellectual property (IP) should also be accessible and affordable for all. If a Zimbabwean inventor has a dispute around copyright and IP issues, both he and the defendant, should be provided with capable government lawyers to represent and assist them, for no charge. This will be crucial since, the guarantee that IP will be respected will encourage more innovations. Additionally, if local entrepreneurs can secure their IP, they will be able to easily attract capital, as their business case will not be subject to imitative competition. This will serve the country well because such protected businesses will grow, employ huge numbers and pay taxes, unlike the case where too much imitation of business ideas leads to lower profits and drives most entrepreneurs into the informal sector. When a business cannot secure its IP that means it can also not secure its market. Therefore it will have to operate informally, as competitors increase and reduce the revenue which it should have been generating exclusively, had there not been imitative entrepreneurs around it.

Knowledge in STEM should ideally advance to a level where reverse engineering becomes a national philosophy. The country needs to produce engineers who can dismantle any foreign product and reconstruct it, based on the disintegrated components which the product is made up of. This is how China is reported to have gained machinery development capabilities. It is frequently argued that, Chinese engineers would regularly strip down equipment from the Western world, for the purposes of understanding it and learning how to design their own alternatives.

In conclusion, Zimbabwe does need to have an audit of its human capital capabilities on a national scale. However, it is likely that, shortages are mostly notable in STEM. After the audit, effective strategies will need to be laid out on how the country can increase its STEM professionals, through providing more high-quality graduates in the field (of STEM). As soon as capabilities are increased in STEM, the nation should be able to move from a dependency on the extractive sector (mining and agriculture) to a more sophisticated economy which is diverse and has a greater role for manufacturing (value addition), technology and services.

On the other hand, some human capital deficiencies may also be easy to identify, using a shallow perusal of local media reports pertaining to each economic sector. For example, certain civil service offices (ID registrations, the courts, etc) are notorious for breathtaking delays. Municipal workers have the same notoriety in other fields (housing inspections or applications for land, etc). In that regard, the Minister of Skills Audit and Development, will need to assume the responsibility for addressing the inefficiency, if the country is going to remove such distractions to economic and societal progress. An inefficient public service reduces entrepreneurial, economic and profit making opportunities, for the citizens whom it delays at government offices. The reverse is also true, since effective government systems imply that, citizens can be able to apply themselves more productively elsewhere, as soon as they leave government offices. Moreover, since the government is the largest employer, nationally, civil servants largely set the standard for what a Zimbabwean work ethic should entail. Thus, the agility of government workers will need to be improved as a matter of urgency, in order to influence the nation’s overall skills capacities.

Kevin Tutani is a political economy analyst- tutanikevin@gmail.com

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