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Building a lifelong learning culture in Sierra Leone

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I have owned and managed JobSearch (SL) Ltd (, a Human Resources firm, for 12 years. It started as a recruitment company, which exposed us to the enormity of the skills deficit issue in Sierra Leone. We added ‘skills development’ as a service and designed a few courses to introduce first time jobbers to workplace expectations. We also became members of the TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) Coalition to assist with improving technical and vocational education and training in Sierra Leone.

Last year, we embarked on a building project – an eight-room office and training facility. The rationale was for us to expand by delivering more courses to workers and job seekers, and to design skills development programmes to tackle specific occupational areas. The building is near completion. We are just finalising decisions on interior décor.

Being directly involved in this project gave me firsthand knowledge of the challenges with the construction industry – substandard materials and lack of variety, limited modern tools and very few skilled workers. Even the ‘professionals’ who came highly recommended and tooted their own horns were unable to complete the tasks to the standards we required. Take the doors for example – we had three different companies manufacture the steel doors, install door frames and manufacture wooden doors for the toilet cubicles. A second company had to complete each of those tasks, and even then, it was only to a slightly higher standard. In the end, we decided to ‘make do’ with what we had.

I was part of the team that conducted GIZ’s diagnostic study of the TVET sector in 2017, so I was already aware of the skills gap in the TVET sector. We made recommendations for improving technical and vocational education in Sierra Leone. This included provision of reliable internet access for Technical and Vocational Institutions (TVI), revision of the regulatory framework for TVIs, creation and strengthening of partnerships between employers and TVIs, in-service teacher training, revitalization of the TVET division of the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education (then Ministry of Education, Science and Technology) etc.

Having worked in the TVET space for about five years, I am also aware of Sierra Leone’s low level of literacy, even amongst graduates of TVIs. I represent JobSearch in Freetown City Council’s skills development working group and our planning resulted in an initiative to increase the number of literate adults in Freetown by 25,000.

Over the last few months, I have been involved in discussions with other stakeholders about improving adult literacy/education, and I have listened to employers lament the quality of candidates that present themselves for recruitment and the poor attitude towards personal and professional growth that their employees have. The situation is dire. Despite the hard work that has been done over the years, and the large number of learning institutions and formal and non-formal training providers across the country, there is no evidence that it is improving. It is clear that what we need is a deliberate, drastic, all-encompassing solution. We need to build a lifelong learning culture.

Lifelong learning is defined as “the ‘ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated’ pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.” In his address at the First Lifelong Education Forum in Paris held on 29 October 2008, the Assistant Director-General for Education, UNESCO, Nicholas Burnett described lifelong learning as being about opportunities to learn throughout life, in different settings, through different mediums. He continued, “It calls for innovation and a more holistic, flexible, open-minded way of looking at education. It is an education without a start and a finish. This is not a luxury because our knowledge-driven economies are increasingly reliant on an educated workforce capable of adapting to change. A country cannot be competitive with a weak skills base.”

In a study by the National Centre for Vocational Education Research (NCVER) in Australia in 2000, Building a learning and training culture: The experience of five OECD countries, building a learning culture was described as an imperative for economic success, social cohesion, and quality of life in the new world of the 21st century.

How do we build a lifelong learning culture?

In the NCVER report, the writers state “A learning culture is both an instrument and expression of a learning society. While culture is expressed in the attitudes and habits of individuals, families, organisations and communities, the path to a learning society is not a linear one, and cultural change involves an untidy ferment of ideas, policies and strategies.”

My understanding of this is that building a lifelong learning culture would require commitment by various stakeholders as follows:

Human capital development should be a priority for the government

This is the first step, and President Julius Maada Bio has on more than one occasion assured us that his government is committed to improving the human capital of Sierra Leone. It is evident from the continuous investment into the provision of free quality education and the steady improvement of the TVET sector – the TVET policy is being reviewed, some critical roles have been filled in the TVET department of the Ministry of Technical and Higher Education etc. – that he is not just paying lip service.

The government should ensure that we have laws, regulations and policies that ensure availability of modern, relevant, quality and affordable education from early childhood care, all through an individual’s life. Our legal framework should encourage equal access to learning regardless of age, ethnicity, religion, perceived inability and financial status. This may require a review of our entire school system.

Human capital development requires huge investment. Providing the financial resources may require innovative ways of increasing the skills development fund.

Communication is an integral part of building a culture. We cannot create change without the right messaging. For citizens to accept the change, they need to trust the messenger, and then understand the benefits to them as individuals and to society as a whole.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel; there are numerous case studies about building partnerships in the USA and Germany, lifelong learning initiatives in the UK, adult learning in Cuba etc. What we could do is use lessons learned to design our own solutions and partner with organisations, such as UNESCO, for experience-sharing.

Job creation and provision of an enabling environment for entrepreneurship is also critical for building a lifelong learning culture. If learners feel there is no benefit to learning, they will lose interest.

Setting targets is important for monitoring our progress – achievement is a great motivator to keep working. It would also inform us whether or not the initiatives are working and help build trust with citizens.

Employers could provide support by giving employees the opportunity to gain knowledge throughout their careers, through access to information provided by the employer, on-the-job training, coaching and formal training. Employees should be encouraged to make use of the opportunities provided by rewarding, recognising, promoting, delegating etc. The NCVER report states “investment in skills also needs to be supported by a culture in the workplace that allows the knowledge, creativity and commitment of the workforce to be fully exploited.”

TVIs and training providers need to know what type of skills employers require their employees to possess to increase productivity. The importance of communicating the skills needs of the workplace to the supply side cannot be over-emphasised. Employers can also work with TVIs to provide the practical and workplace experience required by giving their students internship and apprenticeship opportunities.

A recognition that skills acquisition can come from informal learning may increase the pool of talent available to employers, instead of focusing only on formal education.

Learning providers, including universities, TVIs and training providers should keep themselves informed of global trends, and the current and future needs of employers in Sierra Leone. Where possible, knowledge sharing should be affordable to increase the number of beneficiaries. Effort should also be made to ensure the standard of education provided is of a high quality, and the environment is suitable for learning.


Every citizen has the right to an education. Every citizen who is legally responsible for a minor is responsible for giving that minor the opportunity to learn. Every adult citizen should be responsible for taking advantage of the learning opportunities provided. Building a learning culture requires commitment from everyone – seeking knowledge, sharing knowledge, encouraging people within our communities to make use of opportunities provided, holding each other accountable, respecting ourselves and others etc.

Last year, I asked my Facebook friends what they wanted Sierra Leone to be known for. With certainty, I can say, I would like Sierra Leone to be known for the high quality of its human capital.

Edleen B. Elba is a Chartered Global Management Accountant and Managing Director of JobSearch (SL) Ltd. She has been a human resources practitioner for 14 years and is passionate about contributing towards the economic growth of Sierra Leone by investing in its people.

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