Abstract The paper presents findings from an evaluation of ‘industrial education’ subjects (wood, metal, electrical and power technology) in Kenyan academic secondary schools. As a project established in 35 schools with comprehensive aid agency (SIDA) support, these subjects do not suffer from lack of attraction to students or from low teacher morale. Exposure to them increases students' aspirations and expectations of ‘technical/practical’ work, but the problem is not lack of interest in such work, but rather scarce opportunity to realise such ambition, in a labour market where school leavers face great problems in finding a source of livelihood. Except for individual cases, exposure to these subjects does not seem to give students an advantage in the labour market, according to findings from a one-year follow-up. Further, doing well in general on the lower secondary examination does not confer any short-term labour market advantage either, suggesting that personal contacts rather than school credentials are decisive. We conclude policy makers need to recognise that pre-vocational subjects should be seen as part of general education rather than as a remedy for youth unemployment.