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Bridging gap in varsity learning, skills demand

university graduate
A university graduate smiling on graduation day. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH 

A few years ago, a local public university made headlines after announcing a partnership deal with dozens of companies to offer paid internships for its students.

The placement programme was meant to offer learners opportunities in a structured way to gain experience and network with employers, increasing their employability credentials ahead of graduation. For those who were inclined towards entrepreneurship, they too would be linked up.

The campaign targeted continuing students in their second year of study onwards, who would work for up to five months per academic year each time they are off-session.

It offered students a structured platform to alternate study and work, as is the case in advanced economies. Besides preparing them for the rigours of the job market, it was expected to reduce high dependency levels among college-going adults on their parents and guardians.

The idea was modelled around a Canadian concept dubbed Co-op Education where universities have established linkages with industries where learners are put in a study-work programme that contributes to their overall college performance.

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The biggest roadblock to exploiting Kenyan youth's potential has been the belief that school and work are separate and cannot run concurrently, with many waiting to finish school first before starting to look for work.

The announcement sparked heated debate as to whether other public universities should walk a similar path. Most college students are often at a loss on how to get internships, let alone breaking into the labour market. Most could be book-smart, but lack practical skills, including soft skills to sell themselves.

It is no wonder that Kenya has the largest number of unemployed youth in the region –presenting a ticking time bomb.

And it is probably why more top high-school leavers are now opting for hands-on technical courses as a job insurance strategy amid a sea of graduates with a background in humanities, all jostling for the few managerial and white-collar jobs.

In the past, a degree was a sure ticket to job security. Not anymore. Over the years as oversized focus was placed on university education, many students would shun technical and vocational institutes. This has given rise to an inverted labour marketplace where certified technicians and artisans are in short supply at the bottom while the managers and white-collar workers have formed an army at the top, sparking fierce competition.

Therefore, such structured arrangements between learning institutions and employers are welcome. And they are not only a boon to students. Participating companies also gain an advantage over the rest. This is because it gives employers the inner lane in the race to select the most talented and innovative learners to work for them.

Under the programme, firms would be provided with academic and discipline background of top learners, easing the selection process. On their part, students would apply at the university before being picked and linked to the companies based on their academic performance and discipline, with the one-third gender rule observed.

The companies then had the option of recruiting the learners after completing their studies, having appraised them during attachment.

By the time they graduate, students would have a total of one and a half to two years of work experience. Whether the said university is continuing with this programme or not, the model is one that should be encouraged and widely adopted. Employers have continually raised concerns over a glaring gap between formal education and industry skill needs among graduates, in what has worsened joblessness in the country. For those recruiting fresh graduates, most are forced to spend millions of shillings on on-the-job training, with no guarantee they will stay around after gaining required skills.

The World Bank has in recent years pointed out a huge disconnect between university education and labour market needs in developing economies, citing it as a driver of high unemployment levels in countries such as Kenya.

The bank revealed in its survey that most graduates in sub-Saharan Africa lacked skills to perform jobs in the economy, with most of them failing the bank's test that gauged their productivity and employability.

Yet long-term growth is not possible without human productivity, a product of quality education and training.

On its part, the government has in the past half-heatedly announced State-backed paid internships offered by private companies. Under the apprenticeship plan, employers who hired fresh graduates as interns were promised a tax rebate.

Not much ground has been covered on this front. This, alongside the local university initiative, is a well-intended measure that would help address the missing link between tertiary education and the labour market and should therefore be revived.

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