As a graduate from an IT or tech school, how can you set yourself up for success? How do you start off right?
First, the problem: Our economy struggles with a shortage of professional skills, especially in tech-heavy industries. Employers are worried that the current educational offerings are not preparing our next generation for the needs of our marketplace. They complain that there is nobody to hire. Yet, young people often complain about a shortage of jobs. Statistics tell us that the average Kenyan graduate will “tarmack” or job hunt for five years on average.
How can we resolve this problem of a “skills mismatch” where the schools are producing people with lower or different skills than those employers do not really value? Could it be that our training - or our attitudes and practices - are off the mark?
Take the mythology of the tech industry, replicated in our very own “Silicon Savannah”.
On the professional side, university graduates, especially if they had good grades, believe they are ready to work. But in reality, most tertiary tech programmes could do better to prepare graduates for the workplace.
Once the graduates join their first job, companies usually need to retrain them from scratch. This is a genuine disadvantage to employers. Trainees are costly – they divert the resources of managers and often make expensive mistakes. But because of the idea that a graduate is baked, many new employees have inflated ideas not just of what they can offer a new employer, but also what they can expect to earn at the entry level.
This same problem is playing out in the startup space. The stereotypical entrepreneur profile is a male in his early 20s who, through sheer brilliance presumably, stumbles upon an idea. Soon, displaying unusual creativity and charisma, he and a couple of comrades drive the company to multimillion-dollar success.
But research from the Harvard Business Review shows that the average age of a startup founder is 45. This is attributed to wisdom gained from work experience. Other entrepreneurship studies indicate that prior work experience and education of the founder is a good predictor of the sustainability of a company. So, the idea of the overnight success, while seductive, is a myth. Few succeed without mentoring and time.
Rather than continue encouraging tech professionals and entrepreneurs to strike out on their own, some colleges structure their programmes as apprenticeships, preparing graduates to hit the ground running. What is apprenticeship? In Middle Ages Europe, an intricate system emerged where a senior tradesman would take a young person under his wing.
The younger apprentice would exchange labour for training and, due to this close co-operation, over the years would himself become a master craftsman able to take on apprentices of his own.
Once training was complete, the system also ranked craftsmen based on their competencies and promoted them by grade as they improved.
A few innovative schools recognise the power of an apprenticeship model. They ensure that students are taught by industry practitioners, have access to working equipment from day 1, deliver coursework through a series of practical projects, and get work experience early on in their education.
Alongside technical skills, these progressive schools provide targeted mentorship for students in various aspects, whether academically or personally. They ingrain in students the importance of soft skills like punctuality, discipline and collaboration. Finally, they encourage students to focus on measurable skills-building in the early years. This way, students can graduate with real-world work experience and a project portfolio.
Here are some ways you can exploit the principle of apprenticeship to set yourself apart in the job market: Be humble: one of the realities is that a person at the very start of their career cannot know what they don’t know. Ask for feedback and take it on board. Remember that feedback is the “breakfast of champions.’”
Practice makes perfect! Build a portfolio: make sure that you keep track of all work that you do, even if it is unpaid, Please your client: at the beginning, your work product may not be very good and you may miss important details and have to repeat the tasks many times. As you are learning, don’t expect to be rewarded for how much time or effort you spend on a project.
Instead, focus on understanding your client’s pain points and how to offer a solution. Seek out mentors: accept that more senior practitioners have important information that you can benefit from.
Take your time: starting out in your career, focus for the first five to 10 years on just learning. Expect that as you become a master of your craft, you will build your reputation and track record.
If you approach your career with humility, you will find that there will be more experienced people willing to take you under their wing. Rather than considering yourself ‘cleared’ when you graduate, consider this as just the beginning of your learning process, which will last a lifetime, even after you become the master craftsman, ready to take on your own apprentices.