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Vocational education key to engineering excellence

By Vision Reporter

Added 20th September 2013 01:36 PM

According to a recent article on the BBC Website, youth unemployment in Germany is under 8%, compared with 56% in Spain and 38% in Italy.

According to a recent article on the BBC Website, youth unemployment in Germany is under 8%, compared with 56% in Spain and 38% in Italy.

By Nick Twinamatsiko

According to a recent article on the BBC Website, youth unemployment in Germany is under 8%, compared with 56% in Spain and 38% in Italy.

Germany’s secret, according to the article and countless other commentators, is her dual system of vocational education and training, a holistic approach involving both in-company training and education at vocational schools.

Industry players and training colleges work in concert to set content and training methods that reflect current vocational practice and ensure a successful mix of theory and practice. Each year, some 60% of German school-leavers choose to enter the dual system.

This explains the low levels of unemployment since whoever enters the dual system effectively enters the world of work.

To quote the BBC article: “Germany's vocational system has been around for decades and is deeply embedded in society. A university degree does not have quite the same cachet here that it does in many other developed countries.”

Interestingly, university degrees carry even more prestige in undeveloped countries, such as ours.

It is important to note that the positive influence of Germany’s dual system hasn’t been limited to the creation of employment. It has also bettered the country’s engineering, ensuring that the label “Made in Germany” commands ever-increasing awe.

While we persist in the fallacy that to grow our engineering, we need to simply multiply the universities offering engineering programmes and churn out thousands of graduates, the Germans are acting on the truth that what really counts are skills and optimal mixes of theory and practice.

I have observed at close range two types of experiences: that of brilliant teenagers who, straight from high school, join university engineering programmes on state sponsorship; and then that of not-so-brilliant, not-so-young, people who join universities on self-sponsorship after undertaking lower level courses and gaining some experience in the field.

It turns out that the latter group – the not-so-brilliant people – eventually makes the better engineers. At university, they may not pass the largely theoretical/analytical course units with flying colors, but they easily understand the ones with practical leanings. Engineering Mathematics may challenge them, but they easily gain mastery of Construction Technology because they have years of construction experience behind them.

The straight-from-high-school group will not grasp the practical course units as well as they would if they had practical experience. They may score highly in Construction Technology, but that is because examinations are largely predictable and scores are often false indicators of actual competence.

In actual sense, these students know almost nothing of the real construction materials, machinery and methods. The long-routers may score less than the straight-path candidates in the examinations, but the real test would be to assign the two graduates similar construction projects after their graduation.

At this stage of the business, the relevance of course units like Engineering Mathematics would be faint, whereas that of practical course units such as construction technology would be heavily pronounced.

At this stage of the business, the capacity to memorise, which many of our university examinations test, wouldn’t matter as much as the practical knowledge anchored in years of experience.       

There are some purely intellectual disciplines such as Literature, Philosophy and Mathematics. But in Engineering – especially the production component – contact with real work is as important, if not more important, than contact with published literature.

This explains why the greatest feats of engineering – from aeroplanes to towering structures - were realised by people with modest book knowledge, but who had spent substantial time in the field grappling with real problems.

But how much contact with real problems does a typical University undergraduate get before graduation? Laboratory practicals and Industrial Training are well-intentioned, but the truth (which university officials know, although they may not talk about) is that they are not efficient, and even if they were, they wouldn’t be sufficient.      

The German model, where, right from high school, students get huge exposure to real problems in the dual system of in-company training and education at vocational schools, is more consistent with the spirit of engineering excellence perceived through the centuries.

The Wright brothers were school drop-outs, just like those fellows in Kalerwe, only major difference being that they had more competence in the language in which most engineering information is published.

But, in Africa, we are busy accumulating paper qualifications that report falsely on our actual competence and despising the vocational education that has been the bedrock of Engineering excellence and employment in Germany. 

The writer works with Uganda Business and Technical Examinations Board

Vocational education key to engineering excellence

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