Computer science: New techs squeeze Kenya's job market for fresh graduates

More digital opportunities exist for Computer Science students with the relevant knowledge and practical skills. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

When Mercy Gachuiri walked out of the Multimedia University of Kenya (MMU) on December 18, 2020, armed with her Computer Science degree certificate, she had a strong conviction that the knowledge and the skills she had accumulated in the four years would be sufficient to power her inroads into not just local, but also international job markets.

Over three years now without a formal job, she has been forced to go back to the drawing board.

But where did she stumble?

Every year, Kenya churns out thousands of computer science graduates eager to join the job market. But big tech cannot accommodate them. Now what?

“In hindsight, I should have done a little extra while at the university than just the course work. Those who did go the extra mile left school with some added advantage. For me, I didn’t focus my energy to learn anything outside of what was taught in class,” she says.

It was during her initial interactions with the tech world outside school that reality dawned after observing how her peers who enrolled in additional courses such as data analytics, artificial intelligence, programming, and coding were having a fairly easier time.

“The opportunities are endless, it’s just incredible. I have now embarked on self-learning from home while at the same time keeping tabs on emerging global trends like Artificial Intelligence (AI),” she says.

The case is different for Brian 

Brian Oroni today works as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of his own-founded tech firm, Mobiticket, which powers the booking and paying of bus tickets via mobile technology.

Mr Oroni, who graduated in the same course from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in 2017, says he always kept himself updated on its growth since his early days in the learning programme.

“I have grown with the industry and always kept up with its pace. I began my career as a young web developer and I’m now the founder and CTO of this start-up which I unveiled in 2016, way before I even graduated,” he says.

The digital transformation

“The accelerating pace of digital transformation and increasing adoption of advanced technologies have contributed to a growth in demand for skilled professionals in these areas. With the right skill set, a thriving career is almost a guarantee.”

However, Philip Oyier, a lecturer at the School of Computing and Information Technology, IT Department, JKUAT says despite the need for more Computer Science graduates to serve the emerging needs, there has been a drop in enrollments.

"We are in the era of more digital and connected devices, which generate a lot of data, requiring a workforce with the relevant skillset to harness the data for decision making. More digital opportunities exist for Computer Science students with the relevant knowledge and practical skills," he says.

"But over the years, the numbers have been declining. More computer-related courses have been developed, thus providing more options for students."

His sentiments are echoed by Vincent Leteipa, also a Computer Science scholar, who is today the director of development operations at software firm NGENI LABs.

Mr Leteipa, who graduated in 2021, has also founded his own software development school named Adamur Inc.

“The industry is in dire need of graduates with practical skills and abilities to adapt to evolving technologies and this can only happen if they do beyond what they are taught in class,” says Mr Leteipa.

Lagging curriculum

“I also feel the course curriculum taught in school needs to be tailored to industry needs. It’s time learning institutions wake up and intensify research on present-day market dynamics,” he adds.

Part of the challenge, critics argue, is whether the curriculum material taught in school bears relevance to industry needs.

"Given that technology changes very fast, and approval of new syllabus takes a process, industry partners bridge the gap by equipping both faculty and students on emerging technologies," Mr Oyier says.

"The curriculum has foundation concepts for industry needs, students in the final year of study undertake research projects, which identify and solve an existing problem using both methods taught in class and emerging technologies."

However, some universities are already updating the course content to align it with modern needs.

"We work with many industry partners, including Huawei, Oracle, IBM, and Cisco. We recently reviewed the undergraduate curriculums in the School of Computing, and are currently reviewing the postgraduate curriculum," adds Mr Oyier.

Enhancing employability

So, what extra course can a fresh graduate take to enhance their employability chances?

"Be conscious of the university environment and take advantage of opportunities to network and learn in physical and online hackathons and boot camps, mostly organised by industry," Mr Oyier advises.

"Finally, get certified in as many industry courses as possible, and yes, share any project done on the repo and social media handle for publicity."

Patch Osodo, who works as a Service Desk Analyst at Sidian Bank, says school work only equips one with the basics which poorly compares with the endless possibilities available in the field.

He is, however, quick to note that the connections and networks gained at university greatly aided in his indulgence in the field as it gave him the required exposure to find his way around.

“What I would ask to be improved on is the frequency at which course content updates are effected, as well as the introduction of specialisation into specific branches at an earlier level of study,” he says.

Ms Gachuiri also faults the course curriculum material saying it contributes just a minimal fraction of what a graduate needs to face the job environment, pegging the portion that is relevant at just 10 percent.

“Most of what is required in the job world is not necessarily taught in school. It is, however available on the Internet and in other books that are in school libraries,” she says.

“Curriculum developers should focus on global trends and phase out the outdated syllabus which places great emphasis on theories. A more practical set of coursework would give learners the much-needed hands-on experience.”

Carving a niche

On what graduates can do to enhance their employability chances, Mr Osodo advocates for carving a niche and giving it the best shot.

“For a fresh graduate, I would advise them to select a craft and gain as much knowledge as possible, as well as practice the specialisation, be it networks, cybersecurity or even programming. Be the best at what you do,” he says.

Mr Oroni, on the other hand, champions a bold approach, saying that establishing a portfolio and being a member of a community of professionals is a key step to enhancing visibility.

Building a portfolio

“When I began, we had hackathons and networking groups. Fresh graduates should be attending these to create a network. Build a portfolio and put it out there, rebuild popular systems from scratch, and build data models for popular online open-source data. Showcase your work, people will see you,” he advises.

“Remember, location matters as well. Learn skills that are relevant to your location. You don’t want, for example, to begin by building robots that no one in your area will be using.”