The New York Times online edition ran this breaking news story on Tuesday September 15th this year: “De Blasio to require computer science in New York City schools.” The article explains further, “To ensure that every child can learn the skills required to work in New York City’s fast-growing technology sector, Mayor Bill de Blasio will announce on Wednesday that within 10 years all of the city’s public schools will be required to offer computer science to all students…the goal is for all students, even those in elementary schools and those in the poorest neighborhoods, to have some exposure to computer science, whether building robots or learning to use basic programming languages. Noting that tech jobs in New York City grew 57 per cent from 2007 to 2014, Gabrielle Fialkoff, the director of the city’s Office of Strategic Partnerships, said, “I think there is acknowledgment that we need our students better prepared for these jobs and to address equity and diversity within the sector, as well.”
Bill de Blasio was sworn in as Mayor of New York City on January 1st 2014. It’s still early to comment on the efficacy of his tenure, but it is noteworthy that his goal is to have an educational curriculum that makes his citizenry relevant in the not so distant future, when he will likely already have left office. At the risk of sounding condescending to you dear reader, this is what forward planning looks like. It requires complete selflessness in the sense that you are making policies that will benefit future generations and that have zero positive impact on today’s bottom line. If you ask any employer what a key resource for delivery of their organization’s strategic goals is, they will tell you that it is competent and skilled human capital. And that human capital doesn’t buy skill from aisle 7 at the local supermarket. The academic curriculum in our secondary and tertiary institutions is critical for businesses today and it is imperative that they are regularly reviewed for relevance in a rapidly changing technological backdrop. Let me park this aside briefly.
So I went to visit Moraa at her furniture factory last week. Yes, I did say pax romana on any more entrepreneur-in-Kenya horror stories in last Monday’s column, but I have uncrossed my fingers just this one time after the mind blowing visit. For those of you reading this for the first time, Moraa is one of several insanely committed entrepreneurs whose courage to do business in Kenya, employ citizens and develop a supply chain that generates value as well as impacts more lives is nothing short of admirable. She, and many others like her, try to do legitimate business in Kenya but have had great difficult getting government support in opening new markets or creating an enabling environment for goods to be distributed within the region despite all the chest thumping around “ease of doing business” reforms.
Anway, Moraa has imported state of the art furniture cutting and printing machines in order to make a high quality Kenyan product. I stood in awe as I watched one laser machine print out a beautiful cartoon motif on the back end of a wooden bed resulting in a high definition, permanent image that did not drip or bleed past the edges. She had several other cutting machines that remained unmanned, and when I asked I was told that there was a severe shortage of skilled wood artisans since many polytechnics had converted into universities. On her last jaunt to one of the former polytechnics [I will not say which one, as I’ve realized government agencies take umbrage whenever I talk about them here and are always quick to send me a point of correction. However it is extremely refreshing to see that a) they read the papers b) they are sensitive to public perception of their services and c) they actually do care!] She found that they had some of the latest and very expensive machines that were simply lying idle in the workshop. Having been purchased, there were no trained personnel one to teach the students on how to use the equipment! As entrepreneurs always turn a challenge into an opportunity, Moraa’s next goal is to see how she can create a technical institute to train wood artisans, as she needs some for her own factory and envisages that the growth opportunities in the industry will continue to drive demand for this skilled resource.
Back to the curriculum discussion: How often do our public universities meet with industry and determine whether the output in the name of graduating students meet the needs of employers today? I recently saw an advertisement in the newspaper calling for public participation in the much-needed review of the 8-4-4 curriculum which is a wonderful initiative. My two cents worth from my well worn armchair: Have a two year course run in form 3 and 4 that teaches students how to run a business and ensure that it is project based rather than theoretical. It will assist a) those students who don’t necessarily want to pursue university studies and b) will ensure that those students who eventually end up working in government get a good sense of what it takes to be an entrepreneur which should guide their future policy making of today’s current buzz word: “ease of doing business”. Of course all this is futuristic, like Bill de Blasio’s dreams of a tech driven culture in the New York City post 2030.
On a happier note, staff from Kenya Revenue Authority visited Moraa last week. They came bearing gifts; a bottle of wine and a beautifully wrapped box of chocolates as part of their customer care week thanking tax compliant businesses. When she managed to scrape her jaw off the floor in shock at the friendly and very engaging visit, she shared the incredulous story. My jaw, not surprisingly, is still on the floor. When government works, it works well! Nice touch KRA!