Making Skills Development Work for Economic Transformation in Africa: Demystifying the Suit and De-stigmatizing Vocational and Technical Education

Written by: Eugenie Maiga

In many African countries, people who attend and graduate school hope to end up in white-collar jobs. The perception is that being employed in a job where one wears a suit is high-status. Technical and vocational education and training (TVET) is therefore shunned because it leads to blue-collar jobs, which are seen as less prestigious.  The myth of the suit, and the stigma of vocational and technical education need to be addressed to enable TVET to contribute its full potential to economic transformation in African countries.

Often, the TVET path is also seen as a dead end, because it only advances to the secondary level. This reality points to the lack of articulation between the TVET system and the university systems in Africa. That disconnect is a hindrance not only to changing perceptions about TVET, but also to facilitating the pursuit of education at higher levels after, or in conjunction with, TVET education.

In contrast, the education systems in South Korea and Singapore are designed in a way that allows TVET students to pursue university studies. TVET and the tertiary education system have been articulated so that after grade 10 of secondary school, students with three years of TVET can enter university undergraduate programs.

The experience of comparator countries[1] like as Germany, Finland, Ireland, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan show us why we should demystify the suit and de-stigmatize TVET. In 2009, Germany had 53.2% of upper secondary students enrolled in TVET, Finland 55.1%, Ireland 33.9%, and Korea 24.4%.  These countries have all developed a strong manufacturing base and remain competitive partly because they were able to steer a large share of their secondary and higher education students into technical fields of study. This, versus 72.1% enrollment in TVET for Angola, 20.9% for Burkina Faso, 22.4 % for Cameroon, 59.5% for Ethiopia, 13.2% for Ghana, 1.0% for Kenya, and 9.7% for South Africa. With the exception of Angola and Ethiopia, these African countries fall short of TVET enrolment rates reached by some of the most competitive economies in the world, and the results are evident.

However, high TVET enrollment rates are not a guarantee for a country’s economic competitiveness. Angola has experienced high rates of upper secondary TVET enrollment since 1998 (when data availability starts, 73.3% between 1998 and 2010), but the country ranked poorly in terms of competitiveness: 138 out 139 countries in the 2010-11 Global Competitiveness Index (GCI) and 139 out 142 countries in 2011-12.

Ethiopia’s TVET enrollment rate began to increase in 2003 when it climbed from 13.1% in the previous year to 47.7%, following a push by the government to make TVET more articulated with tertiary education and to provide skills for agro-industries. The average upper secondary TVET enrollment between 1998 and 2010 was 38.6%. Ethiopia fares better than Angola in GCI with rankings of 119 out 139 countries in 2010-11, 106 out of 142 counties in 2011-12, and 121 out of 144 in 2012-13.

The reasons for the counter-performance of Angola and Ethiopia in competitiveness despite high rates of TVET enrollment include the fact that competitiveness does not solely depend on the level of skills development but also on the quality of the TVET system, on the other drivers of competitiveness (e.g. institutions, infrastructure, innovation, etc.) and on alignment between skill development policies and industrial policies.

In 2009, GCI rankings placed Finland at the 6th position, Germany at the 7th position, South Korea at 13th, and Ireland at 22nd, while South Africa placed 45th, Kenya 93rd, Ghana 102nd, Cameroon 114th, Ethiopia 121st and Burkina Faso 127th [2]. Although the excellent performance of their skills development systems is not the sole explanation of the strong economic performance of the higher ranking countries, it certainly explains a nontrivial degree of the competitiveness of their economies, as the education system provided the necessary skills for building a strong industrial base.

The strong skills development systems in the comparator countries explain their ability to export high rates of manufactured goods. Indeed for the latest year available, the share of manufactured exports in total goods and services exports was only 0.002% for Angola (1991), 4.5% for Ethiopia (2010), 5.2% for Cameroon (2010), 10.3% for Burkina Faso (2009), 17.4% for Ghana (2010), 37.7 % for South Africa versus 47.4% for Ireland (2010), 54.7% for Singapore, 55.2% for Finland (2010), 66.4% for Germany and 75.9% for the Republic of Korea (2010). Thus, among the above-mentioned African countries, only South Africa comes close to the manufactured export rates of the comparator countries.

Marketing campaigns are needed to tackle the “image problem” of TVET and promote the use-of-the-hand jobs in order to change perceptions that TVET is for those who could not succeed in general education. This marketing strategy can emulate the Singaporean model of public campaigns on “using the hand”, Top-of-the-Trade television competitions, and Apprenticeship of the Year awards to demonstrate the importance of technical skills. In Germany, company management positions are made available to those who started at the bottom of the ladder rather than exclusively to business school graduates. The German example can help demystify the suit showing that one can start out as a blue collar employee and rise through the ranks to become company manager. Other ways of tackling the image problem of manual labor could use religion to reach people who are strong believers. Africa is one of the few areas of the world where religion is growing rapidly and has a great influence on how people conduct their lives. Therefore the many examples in the religious scriptures about working with one’s hands can be used to try to change people’s perceptions about TVET (e.g. Jesus was a carpenter).

Economic success for developing countries is not solely due to a good skills development strategy. Conducive environments for labor market clearing must be put in place for the success of skills development policies. Rigidities in labor markets often hinder job creation and dynamism in the workforce. Skills development policies and industrial policies must be aligned for transformation to take place and be sustained.


Countries that are successfully transforming, including those in East Asia, have education and raining systems that stimulate their economic and social transformations. Using their successes as examples, chapter in the forthcoming African Transformation Report looks at the future of supply and demand in the labor market and shows how critical it is for countries to develop and implement comprehensive policies for skills and educational development within the frame of a broader transformation strategy. 


[1] I use Germany as a comparator country because it is the only Euro zone country that is doing well, despite the economic crisis. The other countries have leapfrogged from economic bust to boom in 3-4 decades by reforming their education and training system to suit their economies’ needs. that the US and Japan also top the competitiveness rankings, but we chose to focus on these countries because of the specificity and similarity of their experience in skills development.

[2] Angola was not among the countries ranked in the 2009 Global competitiveness report.

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