By Ibrahim Kasita
AS you visit Buseruka Hydropower Plant located in Buseruka Sub-County in Hoima district at the flank of the Western Rift Valley, overlooking Lake Albert ,you will see a small diversion dam across River Wambabya.
There is a tank that desilts rock and sand particles as the water approaches a channel fore bay (small pond). The purpose of the dam is to create a reservoir. The canal is built to divert the water from the reservoir to the power station.
But most critical is the pipe that directs the water to the turbines that will generate the 9 Megawatt (MW) capacity of electricity onto the national grid.
This pipe is only 1100 metres from reservoir to the power house which is located north of the bridge over River Wambabya on the road from Buseruka to Kabaale where an oil refinery is proposed.
Ten youthful Asians go about fabricating, welding and joining the tube together. There isn't any Ugandan among them.
The project resident contract manager was asked why Ugandans were not involved, he politely said: "They don't know what to do. We had to get these young men from Malaysia, Indonesia, India and Sri-Lanka because they are skilled.
The manager, who also happens to come from India, added: "We tried to look for Ugandans with such skills but they were not there. We were offering good wages compared to international standards but we failed to get them yet we needed work to proceed as we are under tight deadline."
When probed further whether the firm contacted artisans in Katwe (home of welders, masons and artisans) he said that they lacked the required certified skills. "Working the tube is beyond fabrication. It requires specialised welding skills which are certified by international agencies," he said.
Shortage of international certified skills needed for the emerging petroleum sector poses major obstacle in ensuring that Ugandans get the juicy oil jobs. The approach and strategy of skilling the workforce is not tailored to sustainability.
This is very instructive as Uganda prepares to get into oil production. While a few wealthy and well-connected Ugandans can send their sons and daughters to study in Europe and US in preparation for top-level jobs in the oil sector jobs, most of the jobs will be low level blue collar jobs in welding, metal fabrication, pipelines, masons and artisans.
The public sector has sent many of its employees abroad to pursue masters degrees in petroleum related courses. The oil companies, when forced to train Ugandans, have supported Ugandans to study courses that will get them jobs at trainee in management level.
This is not really a bad strategy. The only problem is there are only few top level jobs. More jobs in particular for the youth are in the "blue collar" jobs
This has been neglected or dealt with in a slow pace. Now that the confirmed oil deposits have increased to 3.5 billion barrels in reserves up from 2.5 billion barrels there is justification for a local refinery.
This will spark a web of pipelines from linking the various oil fields to transport crude from oil wells through the central processing facility to the refinery for purification before sale to the market.
Construction of the refinery and the associated pipelines will need qualified, skill and certified welders and metal fabricators.
Sources familiar with the industry say, if there are no qualified Ugandans who meet the strict standards to do the job, workers will be outsourced from Kenya, Egypt, Algeria, Zimbabwe, Trinidad and Tobago and from other parts of the world.
Skills required in oil pipeline fabrication go beyond welding metal doors, windows, gates, water and fuel tanks, motor vehicle bodies and brick making machines. It involves learning stick electrodes, wire feed processes, plasma arc cutting, air cutting, computerised cutting and oxyacetylene welding.
Such skills must be certified to ensure that they meet international standards for pipe and steel welding. Although Katwe Fabricators Cluster boasts of about 800 firms employing 3000 people few if any have the mandated qualifications
For them to compete favourably they need to earn the American Welding Society and American Society of Mechanical Engineers certification which are expensive.
The Enhancing National Participation in the Oil and Gas Industry in Uganda 2011 final report, states that Vocational training is essential in industrial capacity building and for businesses to develop.
"The curricula and training programs for skills development institutions are not standardised. There is no uniformity in the courses being offered, the quality of the training as well as the standards to be complied with by all providers," it observes.
"The unstructured nature of non-formal training institutions makes coordination of training very difficult. The quality also suffers from an inadequate certification system."
The report notes that the most severe is the low quality of vocational training. "There is a lack of adequately trained instructors, as there also is a lack of appropriate training equipment," it notes.
"Training of high quality requires appropriate equipment, tools and adequate supply of training materials."
The report suggests that capacity of vocational training has to be strengthened. "A large part of the work force needed by the oil companies and their subcontractors will be skilled and semi-skilled with a vocational training background." It states.
The capacity and competence of these institutions will have to be prioritized and improved. Building educational capacity is primarily a responsibility of the Government. The Government should make BTVET and education in general a key budget priority.