Over the last few months, a lot of focus in Zimbabwe has zoomed in on labour flexibility.
Emphasis has been placed on creating labour market structures that provide better flexibility from the perspective of the employers’ ability to conveniently hire or retrench.
However, there is a reverse side.
Labour markets can be designed to increase flexibility from the perspective of the job seekers’ ability to conveniently choose for whom and at what price they’re willing to work.
In the case that an economy does not satisfy these job-seeker desires, many unsatisfied job-seekers can opt to transfer into a more rewarding economy.
This is called labour mobility, and it is the explanation as to why certain professions tend to be concentrated in high income economies than they are in lower income economies.
Globally, work permits have become increasingly tilted towards what is called STEM education, the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
The year 2014 saw the highest number of work visas granted in high income economies to date, with Stem occupations representing a distant majority.
This is no coincidence as mainstream economic understanding has accepted that STEM competencies are the most relevant for job-seekers in today’s competitive global economy.
Higher and Tertiary Education, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Jonathan Moyo has been raising concern over the low number of STEM graduates in Zimbabwe, and I believe increased labour mobility as revealed by this migration trend serves as the best explanation for the minister’s dismay.
More precisely, STEM professions are priced out of the Zimbabwean economy as jobs within those sectors do not pay globally competitive wages.
Amplifying the frustrations of STEM job-seekers is the low opportunity for career development in Zimbabwe.
Not only do STEM-related jobs pay uncompetitive wages, but prospects for engaging in continuous professional development are bleak.
In the private sector, our local companies almost have no budgets for the type of research and development that engages STEM professionals.
In the public sector, research and development projects are few and far between, let alone budgetary constraints as versed by Finance Minister Patrick Chinamasa fail to excite — by the nature of scientific curiosity, Stem professionals require stimulation in the form of practical engagement.
It is inadequate to simply diagnose the cause of an economic ailment.
So, assuming Prof Moyo’s agreement with my advanced prognosis, I encourage him to spend time with Youth, Indigenisation and Economic Empowerment Minister Patrick Zhuwao.
It is in the latter ministry that the Prof’s answers lie, and solutions will only come from the merger of the two gentlemen’s hard work.
Simple cognisance of the finances required to be a Stem innovator would succumb us into acceptance.
Consider just one sector – green energy.
China is spending US$530 billion in green technology over the next five years. The US is going to triple its current spending of US$6 billion a year, which is still a small proportion of private investment in its market-driven economy.
Nevertheless, we can take optimism in that this disparity in STEM expenditure can be narrowed over time.
Lessons are abundant in countries such as South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia which have grown over decades to become innovators and attractive economies for STEM professionals.
A sensible strategy for us to even the STEM disparity between ourselves and developed economies would be to focus on FDI — particularly green field investment.
To elucidate our adoptive nature of STEM, one has to interrogate where most companies in Zimbabwe are in the value chain.
For instance, CISCO Technologies is a leading multi-national business that creates business software, hardware and applications that we use in Zimbabwe.
However, the company itself is not based here.
Instead, it works through business intermediaries that emerge at the marketing and retail stages of the value chain.
Astute observers will trace a causal effect as to why most students only find it relevant to study commercials in Zimbabwe.
Moreover, because CISCO operates at arm’s length in Zimbabwe, there is really no need for local investment in the scientific stage of its value chain; except perhaps for repairs and servicing, of which the incremental number of youths along First Street working on those tasks shows a diminishing professional utility.
So, the solution in this case, and many other STEM value chains, is for Zimbabwe to integrate itself vertically downwards along the value chain.
The CISCO example reflects an unpleasant truth about Zimbabwe’s STEM sector; most of our so-called “technology companies” are basically technology adopters and commercial connectors for foreign bonafide technology companies.
We must start to perceive FDI for its potential to close the STEM gap between ourselves and developed economies. As mentioned before, a similar strategy was pursued by a few countries in South East Asia.
In the early 1990s, South Korea had two consecutive Five-Year Liberalisation plans to attract foreign technologies.
Today, Singapore leads emerging economies in green field investment.
The benefits are evident as both citizens and local businesses have been able to benefit from technology exchange through practical engagement in plants and laboratories across these countries.
With tangible technical FDI in their countries, wages for STEM jobs have become some of the world’s most competitive.
As technology companies naturally assimilate into their surrounding macro-environment, they began to interact with local academic institutions, causing higher interest and enrolment into STEM programmes.
Through continued mutually beneficial interactions between Stem corporations and tertiary institutions, universities like Gwanju Institute of Technology in Korea have become world leaders in photovoltaic energy.
The National University of Singapore and Nanyang University of Singapore are ranked among the top 13 research universities in the world.
So, clearly, the FDI model has been a significant driver in solving South East Asia’s once pervasive problem of priced-out STEM occupations and low participation in higher and tertiary education.
Over time, this is how these countries managed to develop their own indigenous STEM companies like Samsung and LG.
Of course, their model isn’t perfect, and one can always argue weaknesses within it. Our purpose is to improve something that undeniably worked to a respectable extent.
Some of our African compatriots have followed suit.
Just last week, South Africa announced intentions to attract investors in research and development by having private-public partnerships through agencies like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.
Botswana, Rwanda and Kenya have all forged STEM centres that complement green field FDI.
I encourage our honourable ministers to give this model a try!
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