Graduates: This is how universities can help us secure jobs

What you need to know:

  • Graduates find it hard to adopt to the work place as most lack any practical on the job training.

When Ms Eunice Ndiga, a fourth year civil engineering student at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (Jkuat), went out for her first industrial attachment, she quickly realised the difference between what she had been taught and what she was expected to deliver on the job.

“I found myself in a frustrating cycle of dissatisfaction and disappointment. It was at this point that I realised I had little knowledge and needed to start learning on the job. Learning in schools is now geared towards passing exams rather than acquiring knowledge that can be applied in the field,” says Ms Ndiga.

This has become a problem not only for students and graduates, but also for employers, who feel that a lot of time is wasted in going back to the basics of the job, which has proven to be highly inefficient in the workplace.

“The things we learn do not include an application that would equip you with the knowledge required for a particular field. Lecturers hardly turn up for all their lectures and students couldn’t be bothered to attend all the sessions. In addition, the integrity of exams and other forms of assessment has been thrown out the window. The system is literally broken and this reality is reflected when graduates arrive in the field,” Ms Ndiga adds.

Many young people argue that the mismatch is caused by a lack of collaboration between educational institutions and employers, and a lack of career guidance and enthusiasm among students.

Ms Ndiga’s case is not any different, and the situation is getting worse every day.

Kenya doesn’t perform well in a country ranking by World Bank based on individual match rates between worker education and job-required education.

Only slightly more than a third (34.5 per cent) of the workforce has the requisite education for the job, with 40.4 per cent undereducated and 24.9 per cent overqualified.

With a workforce of 47.4 per cent with the right skills for the job, Ghana is performing better than Kenya, although an almost equal number (45.1 per cent) in employment are overeducated and much fewer (12.8 per cent) undereducated.

This, even as data showed that a Kenyan university graduate on average takes five years to find a job.

This skills mismatch has seen degree holders scrambling for low paying jobs, such as security guards, drivers and messengers, in an unfolding crisis.

The 2018 Skills Mismatch Report by the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) indicates that degree-holders in most companies have taken up positions meant for diploma and certificate holders such as clerical and receptionist positions.

The survey shows that 39 per cent of degree holders in the surveyed firms work as clerical officers, 30 per cent as secretaries, 20 per cent as receptionists and nine per cent as casual labourers.

Office messengers, security and drivers tied at five per cent.

“The idea about the gap between the needs of the labour market and the quality of graduates we have in this country is historical because of the changes we made in the education policy and the shift in curriculums that happened without adequate conversations, consultations and dialogue with the private sector and employers,” says Ms Jacqueline Mugo of FKE.

She insists that the problem is in the mode of teaching — with no reference to the workplace.

“Universities keep telling me that they actually don’t produce skills for the world of work, they simply impart knowledge. They prepare intellectuals, basically people who can exercise their intellectual acumen in different settings,” explains Ms Mugo.

It also starts with poor career and subject choice in institutions of higher learning.

“Because of poor career advice, a lot of students take subjects that do not give them employment opportunities and that’s wasting our youth. Our concern as employers is that the Government says they will do one thing but then again they don’t do it. So it’s about financial resources, policies that work, and collaboration,” she says.

There is also just the attitude of the learners once they are in the workplace.

“Beyond the technical and hard skills, we also have a challenge with the students as they are just a different breed of persons. We have not invested well enough as the providers of learning and imparters of skills on the soft skills. Teaching the students responsibility, time keeping, meeting deadlines, accepting correction, how to work and deliver on target, how to learn from older people, basically the soft skills has been a big challenge,” Ms Mugo says.

But the skills mismatch is just a tip of the iceberg.

The bigger nightmare for university graduates is unemployment.

Latest estimates by the International Labour Organisation show Kenya has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the seven-nation East African Community bloc, only dwarfed by South Sudan and Rwanda.

The ILO estimates, collated by the World Bank Group, put the unemployment rate in Kenya at 5.6 per cent of the total labour force in 2021.

That is higher than Tanzania’s 2.7 per cent, Uganda’s 4.3 per cent, DR Congo’s 5.1 per cent and Burundi’s 1.1 per cent.

Even sadder is that around two-thirds of jobless Kenyans have given up looking for work or starting businesses.

Latest data by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) show that 2.01 million out of the total of 2.97 million jobless Kenyans aged between 15 and 64 — and who qualify for the labour force — were not actively looking for employment.

The number of graduates or retrenched workers who have given up looking for work has increased from 1.33 million in the quarter to June 2020 when businesses shed jobs and froze hiring at the peak of Covid-19 economic hardships.

They accounted for 67.71 per cent of the people without jobs.

The majority of those who have given up on employment are aged between 20 and 24 at 580,281, followed by 25 to 29-year-olds at 351,125.

The 20-24-year-old demographic consists mostly of fresh graduates whose job-seeking efforts are hurt by a lack of experience and a mismatch between skills and job openings.

For many like Ms Ndiga, career guidance is poorly developed in Kenya, and students generally end up in courses dictated by their high school grades and societal pressures.

Students are not well taught or guided from a young age to follow their interests and passions, and in turn universities are filled with students who are not interested in their studies and lecturers who teach the bare minimum.

It is with this in mind that many students and graduates are turning to the internet to study short courses to fill the knowledge gap.

“Technical expertise in software is critical for all engineers, yet my entire course has no unit on it,” says Ms Ndiga.

It is further argued that there is no proper engagement mechanism or commitment from institutions to ensure that students are actively involved in their studies.

“Later on, students are sent half-baked to employers who are disappointed,” Ms Ndiga laments.

The knowledge gap in university courses has become quite worrying.

Mr Elijah Githugo, a BSC. Applied Physics and Computer Science graduate from the Multimedia University of Kenya, says there was a very clear gap when he joined the workforce.

“You need more time to reconcile the two and the job market will not wait for you. The only thing missing from the curriculum is practical work. Nevertheless, I think there are enough resources, especially with the advent of new technologies and the advancement of Internet connectivity. In my opinion, we need to incorporate more certification training and assessment in each year of the campus so that you leave with not only a degree but also international industry-based certifications,” suggests Mr Githugo.

Mr Stephen Kamau, a fourth year Computer Science student at KCA University, says most of the things they learn in schools are generalised and “mostly give an overview of what is actually done in the market.”

“You need to learn these basic units more intensively and sometimes even discard what has been taught and learn something completely new, especially in IT where trends are constantly changing. I feel that universities are not focusing on teaching skills that are relevant to the job market in the country, some skills are outdated while others are not in demand as much as they are taught,” Mr Kamau contends.

Rather than sending out a graduate with a sort of “table of contents” from which they then have to decide what they want to do, Mr Kamau argues, universities should partner with companies or people working in specific fields and provide students with opportunities to use their newly acquired skills.

Ms Pauline Nabalayo, a Procurement and Logistics Graduate from Multimedia University of Kenya, reckons failure of universities to exchange notes with companies has made the skills mismatch even worse.

“I don’t think there are enough resources in universities to enable students to acquire the necessary skills needed in the field,” says Ms Nabalayo.

Mr Lee Chomba, a fourth year Telecommunications student at Dedan Kimathi University, agrees students in Kenyan universities “get knowledge in the field of study but not necessarily the skills.”

“This in turn leads to employers having inappropriate employees and also graduates not having proper job opportunities. In the field, I’ve picked up new skills that are applicable to a different job in my field of study, which is completely different from what I’ve learned in class. Universities should focus on teaching students more technical skills in certain fields, such as engineering, because practical work is essential,” says Mr Chomba.

According to early career coach and instructional designer Maryann Somba, there’s a serious mismatch between the skills young people acquire from the education system and those in demand in the labour market.

“I think the mismatch is in the practicality of the courses we’re doing. For example, a lot of the courses we’re taught or the way we’re taught are based on theory, which is not entirely wrong because the principles for industry need to be laid down, but just theory is not the whole story. What are the current practices? How is technology affecting the field we are in? What are the different alternatives for the course? I think this is where the gap is. A blend of theory and current practice is how we equip students for the world of work,” explains Ms Somba.

Dr Mary Mugo, who teaches Strategy, Governance and Leadership at the Multimedia University of Kenya, blames what she says is a miscommunication between the employers and the learning institutions.

“Having worked in the private sector for many years before becoming a teacher, I think it’s not really that graduates are not qualified, it’s just that they are not as exposed. I think the problem is not necessarily the graduates, but the pathology of the education. Industry should get our students into placements that help them to develop the skills they are learning,” Dr Mugo explains.

She adds: “Most universities give students a three-month internship, and in those three months they may not be doing what they should be doing as much as they should. They’re probably just given someone to observe because they take commitment lightly. It’s a misconception that graduates don’t have the skills.”

Dr Mugo’s suggested solution?

“The private and public sectors need to work together. The government should provide internships for students in between their studies, but students also have a role to play. They should have the drive to learn things that are not in the curriculum, so to speak,” she says.

She blames employers for having what she terms “unrealistic expectations of graduates, where they want you to do too much and pay you too little.”

“The government should allow organisations to take on graduates in an internship aspect for maybe a year, and they should reimburse the employer who is paying the student during that period. The government should have a policy where students are absorbed from one industry to another. They should also ensure that teachers are retrained every two years,” she says.

She believes the solution lies in fixing both the workplace and the learning institutions.

“There needs to be better collaboration between the world of learning and the world of work. We need better collaboration between them to ensure exposure of graduates to the real world of work,” she says.

She goes on: “As FKE we have taken initiative to try and bridge that gap, we are engaged in those forums where these policy decisions are being heard at university level, at TVET level, we actually have a ‘Girls in Tech’ program at the moment to encourage girls in tech, we go to speak in schools. We should stop the blame game and work together towards mending the situation.”

For universities, Dr Mugo believes, “lecturers should be constantly learning how to deliver what they have.”

“There should be a training levy for lecturers and for books. Teaching is also changing, like now we have the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC). Are universities ready for CBC? If you bring me someone who is gifted in music, how am I going to teach them? We need a training levy for faculty members, not only for conferences in the country, but also for training abroad to see how other people do things,” concludes Dr Mugo.