Spanners and Skills Needed for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Nepal

Schoolgirls in Kathmandu. Photo by Karen Lane
Schoolgirls in Kathmandu. Photo by Karen Lane

By Karen Lane

In Nepal, we need to make sure not only that all kids get the chance to go to school, but that they also stay in school, and learn the skills they need to find future jobs.

Early on a dusty Tuesday morning we set out for the countryside outside Kathmandu, Nepal.

Many people had clearly been up for some time. And driving along the main road out of the capital city, there were construction workers heaving materials or, like everywhere, in deep contemplation of the job at hand.

Some shops were already open or placing their wares outside their windows, while other Nepalis were striding or driving to offices past coffee and tea sellers offering morning caffeine in a cup.

As the tarmac of the city gave way to the chill green of Kavre district and beyond to the rising and falling topography of Sindhupalchowk district, we passed curtained barbershops, clothing stores garlanded with multicolored T-shirts and cold weather wear, suppliers piled high with 20-kg bags of grain and seed, and then past farmers and villagers shouldering loads of firewood, green vegetables or shovels on their way to fields and homes.

By then, it was getting close to the start of the school day, 10 a.m. for most kids, who were also on the road in red or blue tracksuits or wearing uniforms of smart shirts and loosened ties, walking to school in chattering groups or milling on corners awaiting a country bus.

Seeing them all made me think about the connection between the two—education and work—not least because my own two teenage sons living with me in Manila are also starting to think about life after high school. “Anthropology or robotics,” is what one of them answered when I recently asked what he wanted to study in college. 

My boys are lucky. There is no question that they will continue studying up until the age of 18, and hopefully beyond. In Nepal, the latest data from 2012 shows that 97.4% of girls and 97.9% of boys go to school.

At 98.7% overall, that’s a big jump from only 69.3% in 1999 and makes Nepal one of the early achievers of this Millennium Development Goal. However, that masks a more complex picture. In fact, only 12% of students who enroll in primary school complete the 10th grade. That is, the vast majority finish school before they are 16 years old.

And more than that, several people I have met in recent days talked about the kind of education at even the best schools in the city.

Studies, they say, focus on memorization of facts and academic discussion rather than teaching trades or modern skills like computing, finance or entrepreneurship because those who do go to school aspire to a highly prized professorial-style career in teaching, rather than one where high-level manual skills or even business acumen is needed. That has left the country short of computer engineers and plumbers, as well as those able to take their small enterprises to the next stage up the ladder to become bigger national, or even international businesses.
Certainly the world will always need farmers, barbers, or even a few anthropologists for that matter, and I certainly appreciate those willing to get up at the crack of dawn and grind the morning coffee beans.

But the education systems in Nepal where I’m visiting, the Philippines where I live, or the UK where I was born not only need to make sure that all kids get the chance to go to school. They also need to ensure they stay in school and, most importantly, get the kind of learning that will let them both reach for a screwdriver to fix a robot, or a spanner to fix a car engine. There will always be jobs, but schools need to prepare young people for the jobs of tomorrow.

There is dignity—and much value—wherever the skills and tools are wielded.