Elizabeth Ohene: Where the jobs are

It is an abbreviated version of a speech I gave to students at Ho Technical University in 2018. I have made versions of the same speech at the Institute of Engineers and other meetings. My apologies to those who have already heard, but this is the mood I’m in: There’s probably an apocryphal story I’d love to tell. Forgive me if you’ve heard it, or any version of it.

It says that an American couple, the husband, a neurosurgeon, and the wife, a top-notch pediatrician, woke up one morning to find their kitchen was flooded as they were getting ready to go to their busy jobs. They called the plumber who came in and within half an hour the problem was fixed. He gave the couple a $2,000 bill and quite predictably, husband and wife were shocked.

The neurosurgeon told the plumber, “Come on, we’re top-notch doctors, we’re both very skilled and we save lives every day; we don’t make the kind of money you try to charge us for a few minutes of work.” “I know”, interrupted the plumber, “I know, I was a top doctor myself”.

The first time I heard this story I thought this would never happen in Ghana but after my experience with my plumber over the past three months I have to say I am amazed that Ghanaian doctors are not starting to retrain as plumbers .

I don’t think a doctor in Ghana would dare charge the kind of money that plumbers, good plumbers, charge these days and get away with.

But it’s not every day that you wake up with a plumbing problem in your kitchen or bathroom. So, let me take you through my and many people’s morning routines and let’s see if we come to the same conclusion.

When I wake up, the first thing I do is turn on the radio next to my bed. Since I’ve been a journalist and program maker, I pay attention to those roles, but if we didn’t have engineers, the best journalists wouldn’t be heard or read anyway.

Then I go to the bathroom and look at the sink, the faucet, the toilet, the shower, all these things are where they are thanks to engineers, technicians and designers. But you don’t think about that in the bathroom, do you?

Sound engineers and technicians, mechanical engineers, water engineers, plumbers, technicians, my morning, everyone’s morning wouldn’t be possible without these people.

Then there are the different lotions in the bathroom, and that means apothecaries and things, then I look at the bedroom, the closet, the bed, and that means engineers, carpenters, and then I iron my shirt, I worry about the condition of my hair, my nails, ie tailors, hairdressers, hairdressers, manicurists.

Then I go to the kitchen and boil some water for my coffee and one good day, some toast; the kettle, the fridge, the cup; someone made them.

Oh yes, I would have checked my phone and it probably would have ringed how many times already, and there would be a number of messages. I would have turned on the light, the electrician.

Then I get in my car, engineer, technician, the road I’m driving on, the road isn’t really built by politicians, even though you’d think it was if you were just listening to the talk on the radio; the traffic lights.. you get the idea. Our lives are in their hands.

If I haven’t made it clear yet, please try another way. What is the largest investment a person is likely to make in their lifetime?

A house, when you build or buy a house. And who are the critical people when building a house? I suggest it is not the real estate people nor the banker who gives you the money.

I would suggest that the most important people are the masons, the carpenters, the electricians, the plumbers, the roofers, the tilers, the landscape architects, the painters. No matter how much money you have, if these people don’t do their job properly, you will be miserable in your home.

Do I need to explain how important these people are in our lives? Do I need to explain how important it is that they are well educated and well regarded in society and it goes without saying that their profession is therefore well paid?

Why would we want to put our biggest investment in the hands of people we disrespect and who are not well educated and well paid?

Not everyone builds or owns a house, but a lot of people buy cars, even if it is a ten-year-old junk box. We all aspire to own a car one day.

The vehicle is often the second most expensive purchase we would make. Who will take care of this second most expensive investment?

The mechanic, or the mechanic as we call him in Ghana, the electrician, the upholsterer, the air conditioning technician. There’s no lawyer or doctor or anyone in the famous one percent there.

Let me look at it another way. Ghana is now an oil-producing country and the most popular courses young people want to take are all related to oil and gas.

There is a rising crescendo that Ghanaians are not taking advantage of the jobs at the foreign oil companies.

Well, it turns out that most of the jobs; the highly paid jobs on the oil rigs for which the foreign ‘experts’ are hired are performed by welders.

These welders earn much, much more than any lawyer, accountant or journalist, or any popular profession, that young people in Ghana are pursuing today.

No Ghanaian child tells his parents that he wants to become a welder when he grows up.

I haven’t mentioned food, except in passing as part of my morning routine. Food and waste processing should be at the top of the main sources of jobs.

People will always eat and will have to dispose of the waste they produce.

How come those practicalities, Science and Agriculture have never been seen as sexy in our society?

My theory is that the problem in Ghana is our attitude towards math and science.

They are seen as subjects to be afraid of. The teachers would have us believe that only the very smart kids can pick up those subjects.

In other words, you have to be an Einstein. And when it comes to farming, they find that if you like the subject, you should be without ambition.

I can tell you the exact time during my school years when I hated math and I know the teacher who was responsible.

We cannot get through modern life without mathematics and we must discard the fear of mathematics and promote the popularization of mathematics as the basis for the success of technical education.

The technical people rule our lives and we should recognize that.

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