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Got Skills? Vocational and Technical Training for Development

Recently, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) highlighted an exciting skills development program being implemented in Eritrea. The program, which specifically targets youths, was scaled-up from a pilot project that was conducted from 2007 to 2011. It aims to enhance the capacity of various vocational training institutions and equip Eritrean youth with tangible work skills. To date, numerous trainees, both male and female, from Keren and the surrounding Anseba region have benefited from training in an array of sectors, including graphics, videography, metalwork, woodwork, pottery, and electricity installation, amongst others.

Although seemingly small in scale, the project is not only a poignant reflection of important ongoing collaborative initiatives between the Eritrean government, international development partners (e.g. the UNDP and Norway), and civil society groups and organizations, it also represents a positive step by the country in working towards general economic growth and broad developmental outcomes.

In previous articles, I have explored Eritrea’s nascent mining and energy sector, which has played a considerable role in the country’s economic growth and wide-ranging national development efforts. However, as Eritrea continues to grow and integrate into the broader regional and global economy, it is vital to raise and vary exports, moving away from low-value added and potentially unstable primary products. Manufacturing is essential to growth, and with rapid technical change and global economic integration, it is becoming important as a means of modernizing and diversifying the economic base.

Consequently, focusing on and investing in technical and vocational programs and human capital development are key since they can help build and refine the population’s skills and capabilities to compete within fiercely competitive markets. Notably, advanced skills are not just a requirement for “hi-tech” sectors; even supposedly “simple” areas such as apparel, footwear, and basic engineering products require a degree of skills to compete. Of further importance, a skilled, knowledgeable workforce dramatically improves the investment climate since trained, skilled workers create an attractive economic environment for investors.

Beyond their necessity for competing in regional or global markets, Eritrea should invest in technical and vocational skills programs and human capital development since they help in the fulfillment of a range of fundamental human rights, significantly contribute to social inclusion, can considerably raise productivity and earnings (particularly of the working poor), reduce unemployment, increase the efficiency of entrepreneurs, and play positive, influential roles in crime and poverty reduction (AfDB; BCG; World Bank 2014).

The importance of technical and vocational skills and human capital development is particularly apparent in relation to skills gaps. Skills gaps are prevalent across much of the developing world – such as in Eritrea – and they persist despite generally high unemployment rates. Potential workers, lacking the skills and training required by various industries, remain idle and unproductive.

An insightful case is Sri Lanka; while the country has the most educated workforce in South Asia, with 87 percent of citizens completing secondary school, its workforce is not equipped with the right skills to be machine operators, technicians, sales associates, and managers (World Bank 2014). In this context, vocational and technical training programs can provide workers with the vital skills required by dynamic, evolving economies, and can ultimately help address problems of unemployment and lack of productivity (BCG).

Notably, skills acquired from or honed within technical and vocational programs are especially significant for youth. Young people frequently remain at the end of the job queue for the formal labor market because they lack adequate skills and experience (Boateng 2002). With little access to formal employment, youth may instead turn to the informal sector. While the informal sector can frequently offer certain tangible benefits, it can also be characterized by long, unpredictable hours and limited protections, returns, safety, or security. More problematically, youth unemployment can also potentially lead to crime or other harmful or dangerous behaviors, such as sex work or illicit drug use.

Overall, vocational and technical programs and human capital development are critical elements in encouraging and accelerating development, inclusive growth, and poverty reduction through economic transformation and job creation (AfDB). Moving forward, Eritrea should continue to invest in vocational and technical programs, and seek to enhance their overall effectiveness and impact. Doing so will require firm political commitment, the ongoing participation and cooperation of local and international partners, sustainable financing (especially for equipment), and the foresight to ensure that expansion does not dilute the quality of training.

To augment impact, the potential for enterprise-based training should be explored, while technical and vocational programs should be carefully assessed, diversified, and matched with the skills required by the labor market, possibly with the active participation of employers (Kanyenze, Mhone and Spareboom 2000; World Bank 2014). An illustrative example is the system of productivity councils that was a fundamental component of the rapid growth and success of the East Asian economies. Specifically, the system involved the specific skills profile required by the private sector being fed directly into the curricula of the educational and technical sector.

Finally, the Eritrean government and relevant stakeholders can further develop awareness campaigns illustrating that technical and vocational programs are an important means of empowering individuals to fully develop their capabilities and tangibly improve their lives. Importantly, these campaigns will help garner greater attention and participation, while counteracting potential obstacles related to perceptions of the alleged low prestige of technical and vocational programs.

Vocational Training to Enhance Employment Skills for Youth in Eritrea
UNDP and featured on www.

The National Union of Eritrean Youth and Students (NUEYS) is equipping the youth with vocational skills to help them engage in economic activities and access employment. The trainings are facilitated through the youth employment skills development project in all the six regions of Eritrea. Currently 198 trainees from Keren town and its environs in Anseba region, Eritrea, have benefited from training in graphics, videography, metalwork, woodwork, pottery and electricity installation.

A committee of representatives from the National Union of Eritrean Women (NUEW), NUEYS, local administration, Ministry of Labour and the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), selects the beneficiaries. The selection criteria takes into consideration; gender balance, youth from female headed households, youth who have been demobilized from the military service, internally displaced people and youth who have special needs.

One of the trainees, Daniel Kitre, is 18 years old and has been training in metalwork for the last six months. He said that the training exceeded his expectation because he has learned a lot in those six months. He is confident of his newly acquired skills and aspires to have his own workshop after the training. “I would recommend this training for my friends who are looking for jobs,” he added.

Bierhane Teare (30) is a woodwork trainer and is a former trainee. The trainee job has enabled him to have regular income which he uses to support his family. “I would have loved to start my own business but I didn’t have capital. I am glad to be using my skills to teach others.” He has been at the training centre for five years. He said that most of the furniture they make at the workshop have been sold and there is adequate demand for their items.

Another trainee, Hadgu Araya (36) is a father of two children and is one of the trainees that were demobilized from the military. He has been in training for the last seven months and plans to open his own workshop after the training.

Woodwork is not gender neutral. Though it is a male dominated field in Keren, Mrs. Tsega Teklemenot (28) is a testimony that women can thrive in this field. She has been a trainer at the Keren centre for the last eight years. “There is a perception in the society that woodwork is hard for women. This is not necessarily true. I am [proof] that a woman can do well in this field, I love what I do,” she said. “Most ladies prefer to work as waitresses and make quick money, they don’t want to spend time in training but I hope that they will realize that time spent in training actually pays off once one starts working,” she added.

To promote women participation in male dominated fields, NUEYs, in collaboration with the National Union of Eritrean Women, held awareness raising campaigns in all the six regions of Eritrea to create awareness on gender balanced roles.

One of the challenges of the project is that they have limited space in the centres and can only admit 50 youths at a time. However, the project is boosting the capacity of the training centres. They have purchased additional training equipment and in future hope that they will be able to admit more trainees.

The youth employment skills project was scaled-up form a pilot project that was implemented from 2007 to 2011. It is supported by UNDP and the Government of Norway.

The project aims to enhance the capacity of various vocational training institutions and equip the youth with work skills. There is a lot of demand for training and they are planning to train 325 additional youth in 2016.

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