When Golden Peacock, a Chinese hotel in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe, advertised a walk-in interview for waiters, security guards, food supervisors and stewards in 2016, it was simply looking for candidates who had obtained the country’s equivalent of A-level school examinations or high school diplomas.
Instead, university graduates armed with degrees in accounting, business administration and health sciences crowded the hotel in search of jobs — a searing indictment of the country’s labor underutilization.
Malawi, in a bid to avoid such future embarrassments, is dramatically refocusing its education and training program and launching a series of community technical colleges across the country. But the efforts of President Arthur Peter Mutharika’s government have sparked a wider debate over the future of Malawi’s workforce. The colleges are expected to train Malawi’s youth in skills that are more sought-after by industry than those gained by studying traditional university subjects. The government has already opened 13 community colleges, and 15 more are in the pipeline.
The only thing holding many of Malawi’s youth back, ironically, is their poverty.
But without adequate industrial development to complement this training initiative, many experts are worried that Malawi may simply emerge as a supplier of trained labor for neighboring countries, rather than providing skilled jobs at home. “It will be a loss for [the] government to spend huge sums of money on developing technical skills in our youth, only to let them find jobs elsewhere,” says Eric Mphaya, senior youth development officer at the Department of Youth Development in southern Malawi.
The challenge of finding gainful employment for the country’s youth isn’t new for Malawi. But it is growing, and rapidly. According to World Bank estimates, Malawi’s unemployment rate was over 10 percent between 2000 and 2002; today, youth unemployment stands at a whopping 23 percent. Vocational education, Mutharika said at the launch of the first community college at Ngara in northern Malawi in March 2015, would enable “development and self-sufficiency because they provide means of earning a living.”
The new community colleges are drawing students, mostly secondary school graduates who failed to secure places in the country’s public universities. That’s a large pool in Malawi, where the standard technical education, vocational and entrepreneurship training (TEVET) system enrolls only 700 students — 3.5 percent of secondary school graduates — annually. That’s the lowest among the Southern African Development Community — a grouping of 15 southern and eastern African countries — and three times lower than the African average, according to the country’s Youth Status Report of 2016. The public university enrollment stands at 51 students per 100,000, compared to the African average of 337.
That explains the excitement for these community colleges among many secondary school graduates in rural and semi-urban areas, left as they are with little or no choice in traditional higher education streams. Since the inception of the colleges, more than 2,000 students have graduated with skills like plumbing, electrical installation, motor vehicle mechanic, tailoring and designing, welding and fabrication.
Allan Gondwe, a current student at Mangochi Community College in eastern Malawi, hopes to become an entrepreneur after training in information technology. The government has committed to negotiating with financial lending institutions, such as commercial banks, to allow graduates access to business loans, and Gondwe plans to test that promise.
But Malawi’s plan lacks outlined targets and milestones, strategies or indicators that would facilitate proper monitoring and evaluation of the initiative, argues Zizwa Msukuma, executive director of quality assurance for the Council on Higher Education in Maseru, Lesotho. The Malawi government, he says, needs to address existing challenges such as the limitations of its TEVET system — instead of trying to short-circuit those problems through community colleges.
And the first signs of the migration of Malawi’s youth skilled in these community colleges are emerging. A 2016 graduate named Tony Kandiero claims that accessing bank loans to establish his business has proven to be a lengthy and mind-numbing process. With no end in sight, he has gone back to relying on farm work for survival. Three of his college mates, meanwhile, have traveled to South Africa to find jobs, frustrated by the delays in the government’s implementation of its promise to equip them with startup loans.
The only thing holding many of Malawi’s youth back, ironically, is their poverty. Like his friends, Kandiero too has contemplated moving abroad but lacks money for travel documents and transport.
It isn’t as though Malawi’s government is unfamiliar with the prospects of its youth finding employment elsewhere. As the country grappled with rising unemployment, the government preceding Mutharika’s had even attempted — and failed — to seal agreements with South Korea, Qatar and Dubai to send its youth to work there. In March 2013, the then Minister of Labor Eunice Makangala announced in parliament that Malawi had reached an agreement with South Korea to export 100,000 youth; Seoul rejected the minister’s claim.
But that strategy makes little sense if Malawi is also investing in skilling its youth — only for them to leave to work abroad, says Mphaya. “This is a worrisome development, and we need to hastily improve our system to make it possible that at least 70 percent of the graduates are being provided with job and business openings soon after college,” he says.
The government must act quickly to provide jobs and begin providing startup capital to skilled young entrepreneurs, says youth activist Marcel Chisi, if it wants to avoid a depreciation in skilled labor.
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