Engineering professionals working on the tunneling of the Nairobi - Naivasha section of the Kenyan Standard Gauge Railways (SGR) project. The government banks on Mega Projects like the SGR to create employment for Engineers in the country.
Little work and few prospects: The Frustrations of Kenya's Engineers
Kenya is said to suffer from many issues when it comes to engineers, the engineering sector and engineering education. On the one hand, journalists, businesses, the government and researchers regularly decry the limited number of qualified Kenyan engineers. On the other, some have argued that Kenya produces enough engineers to satisfy the demands of industry and education but they lack the legal requirements and accreditation to practice effectively. In yet another scenario, some say Kenya has enough qualified, properly accredited engineers but they remain underemployed because of systemic factors that favor the employment of foreign engineers. In a final case, Kenya’s higher education sector is unable to effectively teach the large number of would-be engineers because of accreditation turf battles and/or the engineering teachers themselves lack the requisite degrees and expertise to transmit appropriate knowledge. In fact, Kenya’s engineers and engineering students face a combination of the above. Should someone be gifted or lucky enough to earn a properly accredited engineering degree they may not find employment either because project managers prefer to hire outsiders or because there is not enough work in Kenya (the two scenarios are obviously linked and have become a catch-22 of sorts in today’s Kenya). In other words, beyond the education headaches and hurdles there looms the unenviable task of actually finding work in an industry that all too often values age over experience and who you know rather than what you know. If you don’t have this accreditation then you won’t be hired; if you don’t have this degree then you will be fired. I would like to say that things have improved in Kenya in the year since I wrote about the conundrums facing engineering students, the engineering sector, engineering teachers and universities on account of accreditation squabbles between the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) and the Commission for University Education (CUE). However, the bitterly honest reactions to my article paint a more depressing picture. The fact is that Kenya’s engineering graduates are forced to choose between upholding standards and trying to use their degree with finding a job that pays the bills. A particularly embittered Kenyan engineer asked why Chinese engineers are imported to work on mammoth infrastructure projects such as the standard gauge railway (SGR) when qualified Kenyan engineers remain unemployed. This engineer’s queries are important because they were informed by his experiences in the industry in Kenya and go to the heart of why Kenya’s engineers – those who have successfully navigated the minefield of accreditation, graduation and registration – remain largely underemployed and undervalued. Let’s look at the SGR. In essence, the only Kenyan engineers reportedly working on the SGR are reportedly those employed by the Kenyan part of the consulting consortium TSDI-APEC-EDON Consortium (TAEC). (APEC and EDON are both local firms). While a limited number of Kenyan engineers are responsible - as part of this consortium - for the supervision of the construction several rail bridges, road bridges, rail box culverts, pre-stressed post-tensioned void box girders and other prefabrication works, the vast majority of the engineers are reportedly hired in and imported from China. The Chinese have argued that “Some [Kenyan] employees may have certificates in certain skills, but we often find a mismatch between these qualifications and the requirements of the SGR project.” According to this press report, the Chinese technicians then train Kenyan engineers thereby “effecting [sic] knowledge transfer and the development of local capacity, key objectives of the contract between us [China] and the [Kenyan] Government.” Yet evidence of this remains thin. Part of the problem has been that the Chinese contractors insisted on using the Chinese Standard for railway engineering rather than the British Standard, which is understood by Kenyan engineers (and taught at Kenyan universities). Importantly, this Chinese decision was not contested by the ministries awarding SGR contracts. As such, when the few Kenyan engineers actually engaged in the building and inspection of the SGR have cried foul, their voices have been silenced and explained away by references to Chinese Standard versus British Standard. This occurred back in 2015 when a group of Kenyan engineers reported on SGR sites and structures that had developed cracks such as the footings of a Super Bridge being constructed at Voi. In other cases, works had to be demolished and rebuilt. Yet rather than be applauded as heroes, the engineers were ignored and then threatened with transfer to remote sites. It is important to point out that the threats made to the Kenyan engineers came not from the Chinese contractors but from “the top”; i.e. fellow Kenyans, be they government officials, business leaders or middle management. This points to a situation whereby the few engineers who are actually hired to projects such as the SGR are, at times, actively hindered from applying their expertise and professionalism. While this speaks to a more fundamental problem of who awards contracts as well as how and when, and the underlying rationale for big-ticket items in Kenya, it also demonstrates the frustration that leads many engineers or prospective engineering graduates to simply throw in the towel. This was the case for one aspiring engineering graduate who responded to my article on the state of engineering education in Kenya. This would-be engineer criticized what he viewed as undue attention to accreditation when in fact it was the curricula on offer (and the teachers behind them) who were failing miserably. After three years of studying telecommunication engineering and feeling he had nothing to show for it and even fewer prospects, this student changed majors to computer programming and got on with his life. In essence, these complaints mirror those of the KENET Baseline Survey of Engineering Departments Report that was released in 2016. The study compiled data that included student enrolment, full-time faculty members and their qualifications, institutional financial health data in addition to ICT access and affordability data. The study showed that just three of 12 public universities and 44 engineering departments offering engineering diplomas in late 2014 had a critical mass of engineering faculty with PhDs and therefore had the required potential to focus on engineering research and doctoral programs. However, these three institutions paid more attention to their undergraduates and less to their postgraduate students, thereby not producing near the number of qualified, accredited engineers needed in Kenya. As such, Kenyan universities not only fail to qualify their graduates for life after graduation, but also fail to interest and support undergraduate engineers to become postgraduate engineers. The KENET study concluded with the following four recommendations: 1. Reduce the number of degree programs and departments to ensure critical mass of faculty in each degree program is achieved. 2. Implement an incentive mechanism for Engineering Faculty e.g. Payment of non-practicing allowance OR implement differential pay for critical disciplines to achieve to attract young engineers into universities and retain them in academia. 3. Improve faculty motivation, working environments, remuneration, research grants, travel grants and scholarships for Masters and PhD students by Universities and the government 4. Conduct detailed demand-side study for engineering graduates demand and their employment skills. This could be done in conjunction with the Institution of the Engineers of Kenya and the industry It is important to note that these types of recommendation and the data collected to support them are precisely what is required by external accreditation bodies such as the Engineers Board of Kenya (EBK) or the Commission for University Education (CUE) as well as the management team of a given university. The fact that this information was unavailable until KENET compiled is another damning indicator that accreditation bodies and universities both share part of the blame for the ongoing crisis of Kenyan engineering education. And a further indication of how poorly students and newly-minted engineers are treated. Given the confused state of engineering education and after-graduation accreditation as well as a weak job market and lack of job prospects it becomes easier to understand why Kenya’s engineers end up frittering their time away doing odd jobs or moving into roles where their educational experience and degrees have only peripheral application. In short, if projects associated with Vision 2030, be they the SGR or port expansion or roads or tech cities do not result in much-needed work for Kenyan engineers then why would an engineer stay in the field? The fact remains that like so much of the continent there is a continual drumbeat about the need for better education and more engineers because the needs of a rapidly-growing continent cannot be met otherwise. However, the reality is that the big ticket projects continue to not only attract outside investment and loans but also outside expertise and products. The steel for the railroad comes from China but so do the engineers. The steel is understandable, the engineers are not.
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Little work and few prospects: The Frustrations of Kenya's Engineers
Kenya Engineer is the definitive publication for engineers in East Africa and beyond. Kenya Engineer offers peer review publication as well as advertising platform. IPL has been publishing the Kenya Engineer Journal since 1972.