Africa’s skilled labor:A looming supply shortage

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With a booming construction industry in Africa the need for skilled labour force is badly needed to economically propel the continent forward

By Anthony Kiganda

A growing skills shortage in Africa’s construction sector continues to be a major problem to the sector with employers saying it’s the second threat to their companies after the ubiquitous heavy tax burden.

The shortage of skilled labour in the construction sector comes in the wake of growth in infrastructure projects that the continent has witnessed.

In South Africa for instance, in the 2015/16 budget, it was announced that the government would spend US$8.1bn on infrastructures over the next three years, presenting huge growth opportunities across some of the country’s key sectors, particularly within construction.

But with the current key skills challenge it remains to be seen whether this can be realized. Indeed the PwC’s-SA Construction 2014 report revealed that more than two-thirds of CEOs in the construction sector were most anxious about access to key skills.

Although the magnitude of the problem varies from country to country, there have been concerns that the general shortage of skilled labour in Africa is still a major deterrent to achieving major infrastructure development goals. Some players in the industry are worried that if nothing is done to address the challenge the outlook will be one of contrained labor supply in the industry..

“In the next few years, South Africa is going to be running out of skilled bricklayers, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, plasterers and even painters. This means that soon our limited building industry skills base will disappear,” says John Matthews, Chairman of the Master Builders Association Educational Trust and President of the Master Builders Association of the Western Cape (MBAWC).

It is a problem that extends to other African countries. In Kenya, while for years the capital Nairobi was full of plumbers and painters looking for contracts, today this is less so. The rising cost of hiring a plumber, mason or painter — who are in short supply — has expanded the share of labour costs to a quarter of total building expenditure in Kenya, with surveyors forecasting a further rise.


The Institute of Quantity Surveyors of Kenya (IQSK) estimates that the ratio of labour to building cost has grown to 25%from 20% two years ago, making construction more expensive for aspiring home owners and property developers.

Many countries in Africa have seen a trend towards towards adire need of skilled carpenters, masons, joiners, tilers, electricians, steel fixers, blacksmiths, plumbers and machine operators. Plumbers and electricians are the most sought-after. In Kenya for instance their charges range from between KSh1,500 (US$15) and Sh2,000(US$20) per day up from a range of Sh750(US$7.5) and Sh1,000(US$10) a few years ago.

Technical colleges

Exorbitantly high cost of tertiary education has been blamed as the reason for escalation of shortage of skilled labour in the construction industry in Africa.

“The high costs of tertiary education, together with limited places at institutions of higher education, has meant that many school leavers have fewer options to acquire the skills required for employment beyond that of a menial level,” says Tony Keal, Group Skills Facilitator at the Master Builders Association of the Western Cape (MBAWC) – a registered trade association for employers in the building industry.

Yet to address the issue players in the construction industry say the establishment of more technical colleges and middle level institutions need to be encouraged. Andrew Mandere chairman of IQSK says that the move would help to train tradesmen in the respective construction trades. “Kenya’s policy of construct at least one polytechnic in each constituency is an excellent idea and if implemented can go a long way in rectifying the situation,” he says.

According to Kenya’s  National Construction Authority’s Construction Industry Status Survey Report 2014, only 30.3% of construction workers in Kenya are skilled, with 67.6 % mainly semi-skilled and lacking the relevant competencies to be engaged in construction works. Only 2.1% are competent enough having acquired technical training as Construction Site Supervisors.

The Survey also indicated that of the 30.3% skilled construction workers, 81.3% have gained their competencies through experienced gained on the job as opposed to only 18.7% who have acquired the skills from formal technical training.


The education sector has for a long time been blamed for having lacked structures that recognize prior on-job learning experiences and create career progression pathways that would allow for skills development especially in the construction industry.

This situation can easily be turned around through introduction of more demand -driven training modules as opposed to supply -driven curriculums.

NCA plans to enhance the apprenticeship approach to skill acquisition and transfer as a timely and effective mechanism for bridging the huge skills gap existing in the industry. This will surely change the story from one of shortage to abundance of skilled workers ready to serve the Kenyan construction industry as well as competitively be engaged at the global platform.

It is a model that is up and running in South Africa where MBAWC has taken it upon itself to train people in the Western Cape for free. They are also given an opportunity to train while they learn.

The organisation is doing so by providing those who have passed grade 12 and have excelled in maths an opportunity to obtain a Certificate in Construction Supervision. The opportunity is also open to those who have not achieved this academic level but who undergo psychometric tests that prove their suitability for the course.

This four-year course, approved by South African Qualifications Authority, will result in a National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Level IV qualification -equivalent to a diploma from a Technikon.

During the initial three months of their first year, students are exposed to all of the facets of the building industry including carpentry, plumbing, plastering as well as Health and Safety. They are given practical experience through being employed at MBAWC member companies for the next nine months.

Over the following three years, they undergo two months of theoretical training at a technical institution and are employed by different member companies each year. At the end of the fourth year, if they have

completed all of their modules and projects, they receive their certificate

Brain drain

Even so, a debilitating exodus of African talent to more developed nations is one reason for the skills shortage. For example, there could be as many as 4 million Zimbabweans living outside their country, half of them in South Africa.

The effects of shortage of skilled labour in the construction industry cannot be ignored. Over the years, concerns have been raised on the quality of the buildings that are being constructed in some of the African countries. Collapse of building in Kenya for instance has been linked to skills problems.

“The resulting skilled labour shortage in the construction industry has led to a decline in the quality of work and projects. This is because semi-skilled workers are now being engaged as skilled workers to fill the gaps,” explains Mandere.

To tackle the issue Mandere urges for salaries for blue collar jobs be reviewed upward to attract more entrants to the middle level colleges that will train skilled tradesmen.

However to decisively deal with skilled labour shortage in Africa, the underlying cause that is a mismatch between training and industry needs has to be addressed.

Employers have over the years complained that technical graduates do not have the relevant competencies needed by the industry.

This has created a skills gap amidst the context of high unemployment and underemployment rates, yet majority of the youth have academic certificates that have been cited to be more biased towards theoretical knowledge as opposed to practical know-how.