When Kenya’s development blueprint for the period 2008 to 2030, dubbed Vision 2030, was launched, one of the key hindrances to the achievement of the vision was the shortage of engineers in the country. The Engineers Registration Board (now known as the Engineers Board of Kenya - EBK) had said that there are not enough competent engineers in Kenya.
This would seem like a problem that should be solved by getting more people to study engineering. However, that is not the case, and the opposite could even be.
While Kenya has a shortage of engineers, thousands of graduates engineers in Kenya continue to lack job opportunities and are either unemployed, underemployed, or working in different industries from their core areas of training. Data from the Engineers Board of Kenya highlights this paradox.
As of 3 March 2021, there were 17,731 registered graduate engineers in Kenya, but only 2,129 professional engineers.
Some engineers have not applied or registered as graduate engineers, hence this number is even higher. This shows that graduate engineers face a bottleneck when transitioning to professional engineers, hence this artificial shortage of engineers.
Engineer registration bottleneck in Kenya
Unlike other professions such as law and medicine where everyone automatically qualifies to practice after some time or training, engineering in Kenya is a different case. Graduate engineers are expected to work under the supervision of professional engineers for three years, after which they can apply for registration as professional engineers. This involves submitting various reports on the work done and going through tests to ascertain that one is competent enough to become a Professional Engineer.
It is worth noting that graduate engineers are not legally allowed to practice engineering in Kenya without the supervision of a professional engineer. This is where the trouble begins.
Kenya lacks proper mentorship structures to ensure that graduate engineers become professional engineers. Getting a job is hard, which means one may not become a professional engineer. Many who have jobs end up working in places where there are no Professional Engineers. This hinders their registration because they cannot be registered as professional engineers. Consequently, many engineers are not transitioning from graduate engineers to professional engineers.
Battles with Kenya's registration board for engineers
For a long time, people who studied engineering courses in some Universities in Kenya were denied registration by EBK because their causes were not accredited. This meant that one would be admitted to a University through a government-sponsored program, study an Engineering course, only to be told that they cannot be registered because the government ran university which they studied, through admission by a government body, was not approved by another government body to offer engineering courses.
This seemed like an act of government sabotaging engineering in Kenya. Most of those courses have now been approved but the pain and misery that it caused young graduates is still felt today.
The influx of foreign engineers into Kenya
While it seems that there are not many opportunities for Engineers in Kenya, several mega projects by Chinese companies continue to run in Kenya. In all these, there have been limited attempts to ensure knowledge transfer to local engineers. Instead, Chinese companies have been known to bring most of their staff from China, which works to the disadvantage of local talent.
Other foreign companies working in Kenya seem to enjoy the cheap labor afforded by Kenyan engineers, but the Chinese seem to do the bulk of engineering work.
Participation in professional society and union
With so many graduate engineers and few registered engineers, the professional body of engineers looks like a pyramid scheme. The voice of these graduate engineers is not heard. While graduate engineers need to pay membership fees annually, they are denied voting rights. It is assumed that should they be allowed to vote, they will take over the professional body because they are the majority.
The Institution of Engineers of Kenya (IEK) is thus not effectively working for the welfare of engineers.
Despite that, there lacks a trade union that can cater to their welfare. There has been a proposed one but it has never taken off. While that is happening, Engineers continue to be underpaid in many places. Recently, a Governor in Kenya was in the news saying that nurses should not go on strike because they are paid better than engineers, and he was right on the engineers’ part.
An entry-level engineer working with the government earns a maximum of KShs 65,750 per month, while a certificate-level nurse earns Kshs 71,870 per month.
Towards a better engineering environment in Kenya
Many challenges exist. The most urgent thing that graduate engineers need is a placement and mentorship program that will see them transition to become professional engineers.
Students in Engineering schools also need mentorship and guidance as they prepare for a career in engineering. This is something the Institution of Engineers of Kenya can do, and it will prepare students for a smooth transition from school to the field.
For the working engineers, there should be measures to ensure fair remuneration and proper working conditions. With so many helpless Graduate Engineers, market forces will lead to a miserable situation where engineers are grossly underpaid but there is little they can do about it.
The government also needs to take engineering seriously. There should be a commitment to ensure knowledge transfer in the ongoing engineering projects. This way, Kenya will be to carry out mega engineering projects using local skills in the future.
This article is an updated version of an article first published in 2021.
— By Jacob Mugendi