By Mangaliso Mohammed

There is a clear connection between skills development and productivity.

Continuous improvements in skills of the workforce is an essential part of development, which can lead to higher economic growth rates and enable a country to compete against advanced industrial economies.

Normally, conversations on skills development tend to focus on general education attainments with a focus on skills levels and education attainment from basic literacy and numeracy to high-level skills.

In Eswatini in particular, there is still a lot to be done to differentiate between the different types of education and skill acquisition, especially when it comes to validating and elevating the relative importance of skills acquired through technical and vocational education and training (TVET) compared to skills acquired through the general or conventional education system.

Eswatini needs to recognise and embrace TVET as a credible pathway for development of skills and competencies to increase production and productivity within the different sectors of the economy.

Through the research conducted by the Eswatini Economic Policy Analysis and Research Centre (ESEPARC), it is becoming clear that for the country to make significant strides in ending poverty, ensuring zero hunger as well as good health and wellbeing among its citizens, a great deal of economic policy focus should be on strategies to afford all emaSwati the necessary skills they can use to engage in productive economic activities so that they can improve their own livelihoods.

TVET provides the opportunities for skills development through formal and non-formal education as well as through on the job training. By building a strong national TVET sector, Eswatini would be gearing itself towards channelling a greater share of its population into productive economic activities.

With better access to relevant vocational training, more people in the economy would be able to engage in income generating activities, start their own small and medium enterprises, and most of all be in a position to take advantage of the benefits that that come with technological advancements in the different industries.

A relevant and modern TVET sector could lead to attainment of Sustainable Development Goal 8 on Decent Work and Economic Growth as well as Goal 9 by stimulating innovations within Eswatini’s industries.

The National Development Strategy (NDS), the Education Policy 2011, and the National Technical and Vocational and Skills Development (TVETSD) Policy form the key national legislative framework that supports TVET development and implementation in Eswatini. In terms of its implementation, the Ministry of Education and Training is responsible for the TVET system in the country. The Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Trade are also custodians of TVET implementation in the country.

Gwamile Vocational and Commercial Training Institute of Matsapha (VOCTIM) and Eswatini College of Technology (ECOT) are the longest and largest standing government funded TVET institutions in the country. In an attempt to make TVET education more relevant, government has partnered with the Republic of China on Taiwan, which has agreed to provide assistance in upgrading technical skills in Eswatini with a focus on the automotive, electrical engineering, and information and communications technology (ICT) industries.

Research conducted by ESEPARC on TVET skills gaps finds that generally, the demand for tertiary education institutions in the country is much higher than the number of students the training institutions can accommodate.

There are over 16 000 young people who graduate from high school each year. For example, in 2015 the University of Eswatini (UNESWA) absorbed 2 144 of these high school graduates, while Limkokwing University of Creative Technology and the Southern African Nazarene University both enrolled 2 000 students each.

What it means is that less than 40% of the high-school graduates are able to secure a space in the tertiary institutions, leaving a large number turning to TVET training institutions for tertiary education. Yet, ECOT and Gwamile VOCTIM enrolled a total of 917 and 139 students, respectively from first to final year in 2015 (MoET, 2016). These enrolment numbers raise questions on whether the high-school graduates are turning to TVET institutions out of passion/desire to train in vocational trades or whether they do it out of desperation just to be trained in anything available so that they too can have a certificate.

TVET is rarely ever the first choice yet TVET skills acquisition is vital for an economy to compete and grow, particularly in an era of economic integration and technological change. Skill needs are widespread and diversified in most developing countries and TVET is a direct means of providing workers with skills more relevant to the evolving needs of employers and the economy.

TVET forms a link between education and the world of work and should be considered a key engine for economic growth, as it is one of the most effective human resource development and social inclusion strategies offered by both developing and developed countries.

With the limited TVET training spaces in the country, ESEPARC research finds that a major barrier that affects its delivery in Eswatini is the lack of flexibility in the TVET system, particularly on the side of the training providers. Flexibility in the TVET system relates to a shift from a rigid/fixed time for learning (8 am to 5 pm) to the introduction of online learning, where students can learn in their own time and pace.

To illustrate, a greater part of ECOT and Gwamile VOCTIM could be dedicated to the provision of state-of-art workshops to allow students to apply the online-based theory into practical skills. By so doing, both ECOT and Gwamile VOCTIM can increase their capacity to service a greater proportion of the population within each trade rather than the 25-30 students they enrol on average each year. This type of ‘learn on your own online and practice in the workshops’ can easily accommodate even full-time employed technicians and artisans to allocate time for late afternoon or evening classes to practice in the workshops.

Besides the rigid training schedules, the ESEPARC study reveals that TVET is a skill intensive field requiring substantial investments in equipment and machinery. A key challenge in acquiring up-to-date machinery is the dynamic nature of technological change and advancement among industries. The lack of suitable and up-to-date equipment and materials significantly affects the quality of TVET delivery across all the TVET training institutions.

The research finds that public TVET institutions are largely underfunded and mostly lack resources to procure equipment and material for practice in the different training workshops and laboratories. While government funding takes care of staff salaries, it does not completely cover operational costs, which would support the procurement of up-to-date equipment and machinery for the practical work that students need in order to practice and apply the skills learned.

So what can be done to position TVET at the forefront of skills development and education attainment in Eswatini? While the Ministry of Education has done a lot of work to accelerate TVET implementation in the country, questions remain on how the country can elevate and modernise the TVET sector so that it can begin to supply the necessary skills required by industries.

At the same time, there is still a lot to be done to change perceptions on TVET so that a lot of emaSwati can appreciate it as a credible route for increasing national productivity and improvements in people’s livelihoods.