Unis need to take a lesson in teaching inquiry, analysis and communication across the board to ensure their students come out on top form.
Pile it high and sell it cheap is the maxim on which supermarkets were founded.
But now that phrase has an ironic new twist… it refers to people.
For when Tuskys Supermarket advertised 800 internships little over a year ago, it received 3,000 applications — and the wannabes included holders of master’s degrees.
That is the harsh reality of youth unemployment in Kenya, currently standing by some estimates at 67 percent..
The wave of redundancies that rocked 2016 and early last year saw Kenya Commercial Bank, Sidian Bank, Kenya Airways, Airtel Kenya and other big name companies lay off thousands of employees, and now neither the state nor private enterprises are absorbing many graduates.
The idea writ large in such schemes as the government run Youth Fund is that it’s up to young people to be entrepreneurs and create their own jobs.
These schemes seek to transfer resources to young people so that start businesses and sustain themselves. The principle is also seen in myriad competitions aimed at equipping young people with business skills and capital to put those skills to use, such as the ongoing Be Your Own Boss show on TV.
The wind has changed; while before conventional wisdom was that one should go to school to be equipped for good jobs, the realities of the harsh job markets are demanding that educated youths figure out instead how to fend for themselves.
And that is only the best case scenario.
Many more educated graduates live in grinding poverty.
How did we get here?
The first problem seems to be the education system itself. According to Dr Wandia Njoya of Daystar University, Kenyan universities no longer aim to develop holistic individuals but are concerned only with churning out large volumes of graduates.
“Universities see education as a ticket to prestige, not as the development of the human being,” she explained, a sentiment echoed by Hallmark Recruitment’s Joseph Gichuhi who argued universities need to approach education in a holistic way because they don’t currently seem to care for personality and will produce one-dimensional graduates.
The rules have changed: your papers are not as important as your personality and the skill set you have.
The British Council released a report in 2015 on the employability of youth in Kenya that pointed to a paucity of generic skills as one of the factors that feed into the difficulties employers face as they hire fresh graduates.
Soft skills are essential to getting and keeping a job. It is not enough to have a degree in; it’s more important to know how to communicate, be conversant with a suite of computer software, and work well in teams.
According Gichuhi, graduates will often send emails that have typos and some of them will address an email intended for a specific person with Dear Sir/ Madam. These sorts of slips place any applicant at a disadvantage and result in their CVs being eliminated early in the recruitment process.
This was echoed by Kenya Methodist University’s Dr Chao Mbogo who runs a mentorship programme alongside her computer science lessons. Professional development skills — writing, communication, presentation and interview preparation — are its most highly valued aspects.
In Dr Mbogo’s opinion, “universities ought to partner with industry to hold workshops that offer soft skills”.
According to her, some of the impovements needed in higher education are clear: more quality instructors, a culture of research, and improved facilities. There is also a need for students to dedicate their time to activities outside class that equip them for the job market. Time management, making time for work outside class, and building a portfolio during your time in university are part of this.
These, however, are not skills one is examined in, so how would an academic institution teach them?
“Students need to hear the message that they should develop skills while at university, not just acquire papers,” said Daystar’s Dr Njoya. In her department there are opportunities for students to acquire vital skills through field trips, the inclusion of technology, guest speakers, and non-recall exams. Dr Njoya also criticised the tendency among students to ignore opportunities not directly part of coursework as they represent a chance to acquire useful skills.
Some students only want, in her words, to know “how the machine works” but decision making skills and creative solutions are integral to success in all sectors.
A recurring theme was the need to integrate these skills in teaching. For universities, this might mean tweaking teaching models to include group work, presentations, and plagiarism-free work as core parts of the academic process. This will result in greater rigour and produce graduates well positioned for jobs.
Many graduates do not work in their own academic fields for a host of reasons. Some have majored in niche fields in which the chief — sometimes only — employer has recruitment policies that lock certain candidates out. Hillary Oduor is one of them. He graduated with a BSc in forensic science from Kenyatta University in 2015 and still has no full time job.
“The police need forensic scientists but they don’t hire us. I hope that one day they’ll be able to recruit civilians to help in crime investigations,” he said.
A number of graduates will stumble into a field as they wait for a job in their area of training, realise they are good at it, and stay there. Phoebe Khagame, an administrator with a national professional association, was trained in Computer Science and landed in her current job as she sought one in her own field.
“The thing that proved useful from my training was attention to detail. You know how lines of code will not run because you missed a semi-colon? It makes you a bit thorough,” she said.
The Federation of Kenyan Employers (FKE) has complained that the cost of training graduates is high which discourages potential employers. But Hallmark Recruitment’s Gichuhi points out that traineeships provide a good means of entry for the privileged few graduates able to get in.
“Students should start looking for jobs in third year, and not at graduation. They should harness social media in their job search and have a presence on LinkedIn,” he advised.
Some of the long-term solutions government seeks to implement can be found in the curriculum reforms tabled in January this year. They focus on equipping young people with a raft of competencies as they go into the world of work. The key planks — digital literacy, imagination and creativity, critical thinking and problem solving, learning to learn, self-sufficiency and communication and collaboration — are all skills urgently needed in workplaces; some would argue in life itself. It gives one hope that the next generation may be better prepared for the world that awaits them.
One of the recurring themes among experts was the importance of including agility in your job search; being open to using your core skills (inquiry, analysis, writing) in a wide range of areas.
Universities, students, employers, and government all have a role to play with regards to tackling the issue of youth unemployment. A multi-sectoral approach may be the only solution that will fix it.
But before then: curiosity is a great thing to have in your toolbox.