Youth need personal branding to make it in tough labour market and world of business


We can’t be dependent on our colleges and universities to do all the grooming. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

Last Saturday, we tried to interrogate the obstinate question of chronic unemployment and/or lack of business opportunities for our youth. We tried to unbutton the underlying issues; is it that there are limited employment/business opportunities, or is it that majority of our youth are simply unemployable due to certain skill gaps or lack of certain qualities that employers or prospective business partners or clients would find attractive?

Going by the prevailing economic environment reeling from the worst pandemic of our time, it is true that employment/business opportunities shrunk considerably? On the flip side though, other opportunities were created by the crisis (every cloud has a silver lining). It is also true that most of our youth have conspicuous gaps in what HR practitioners would call ‘soft skills’, and a considerable fraction of them lack certain qualities that employers give premium to. The whole fad of the so-called soft life, and YOLO, and a misplaced sense of entitlement prevalent in the so-called Gen Zee aren’t helping things either.

Today, we will try to address the small matter of personal branding. How one ought to package themselves to make it in the blistering labour market - from diction to social media footprint, from dress code to attitude, from disposition to general conduct. 

I once read, many moons ago, that when it comes to personal branding, look at yourself as a limited company called Me Ltd. Then ask yourself what reputation you’d like Me Ltd to be known for. Then work towards actualising that!

The modern-day employer is not only open but also keen to considering other credentials outside of the traditional diploma/degree - a stark indication that higher education is not an end in itself, and that the market is responsive to innovative alternatives.

It is an open secret that there continues to be a significant gap between recent graduates’ perceptions of their preparedness/value/worth in their domain areas, compared to employers’ expectations and perceptions in their (graduates) preparedness/value/worth in the said domain areas. It doesn’t help matters that, on one hand, institutions of higher education are gloating about how they are incorporating the right skills and attitude in the students, yet, on the other hand, employers are lamenting about the gaps in terms of preparedness in fresh graduates.

Technical skills are always important, but on their own, they are no longer sufficient for ambitious graduates. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

In all fairness, institutions of higher learning, however, can only play their part to redesign their modes of instruction and pedagogy, revisit the skills they pass on to students and focus more on instilling the desired knowledge, skills and competencies required by employees and the job market. But the graduates too have their own part to play. We can’t be dependent on our colleges and universities to do all the grooming. Graduates ought to master the art of personal branding with a view of effectively packaging themselves for the labour market/business opportunities. And this takes conscious effort. It is not a cheap investment in terms of time and resources incurred.  

Gaps exhibited by fresh graduates and how they can counter this.

So, how can the graduates package themselves for the labour market and business opportunities? What can they do differently to stand out in a competitive job market where employers point at glaring gaps in the level of preparedness?

Technical skills are always important, but on their own, they are no longer sufficient for ambitious graduates seeking to build a successful career. Because in today’s constantly changing and fast-paced global environment, employers seek out those graduates who are resilient and can build long-term relationships with clients/customers, colleagues, communities and other business partners. The ability to get on well with people and actively build relationships among all players and stakeholders is now more important than ever, and absolutely essential for those graduates seeking to distinguish themselves in the job market.

While some competencies may come naturally to some people, other graduates might have to work on them. Whichever category they belong to, it is essential for all graduates to exercise their muscle when it comes to working well with your team, fostering cohesion and communicating effectively. There are competencies that support the effective performance and career growth of graduates beyond their field of academic expertise. Such competencies are seldom offered in colleges and universities, and graduates are compelled to sharpen their aptitudes in their expertise in order to be successful in the job market.

In South Africa, for instance, the 2020 Quarterly Labour Force Survey quoted unemployment at 29 per cent - one of the highest rates since 2008. Strategies have already been designed to hone graduates’ skills and counter these alarming rates. One of the strategies, which goes a long way towards starting to create solutions and conceptualising features that are more inclusive and sustainable, is through the University of Free State (UFS), which has taken collaboration with the private sector, industry and commerce.

This has seen robust discussions taking place to intervene on improving graduates success and challenges of the job market. This not only addresses employment but also ensures quality supply of personnel from the universities. Most importantly, UFS has also established a short learning programmes office, which aims to train and prepare fresh graduates, and retain workers, in an ever-changing job market. This aids in equipping graduates with the skills and grit to make them employable, supporting the notion that preparing young/fresh job seekers for the ever-changing world of work is an integral aspect of their learning at tertiary level and even post-graduation.

Consistent investment in terms of time and resources in continuous personal growth is imperative. [Courtesy]

Many graduates tend to depict exceptional skills such as critical thinking, teamwork, collaboration, self-management skills and research skills. However, other important soft skills such as communication; oral and written expression, leadership skills, language, technological and professional skills, and social media conduct have in recent times proved to be vital competencies which graduates are missing as they prepare to enter the job world.

Irrespective of what graduates studied at university and what their job is, oral and written expressions are highly necessary instrumental competencies. Graduates ought to hone and sharpen their verbal, non-verbal, written and visual forms of communication in order to thrive in the ruthless and dynamic labour market. Studies show a good number of graduates depict gaps in communication; they can’t produce a well-articulated speech or even a well-crafted written piece. Effective and robust communication is the ultimate skillset in a career. Leadership as a competence/skill is not usually found in a traditional university or any other tertiary institution curricula. Various studies show graduates give relatively low ratings of learning acquired in this competence, and many exhibit gaps in this particular competence.

Language learning has not been a typical feature of tertiary education. Very few of our higher learning institutions offer foreign languages. Graduates can learn new languages in a bid to be international-minded and stay competitive in the current constantly changing and fast-paced global environment. The need for computing skills in all university professions is very intense and continues to grow. But gaps in such a vital skill continue to be depicted. Moreover, there are certain subjects where computing skills form an integral part of the curriculum. Graduates can undertake computer courses post-graduation to have extra added skills and advantage in the job market.  

Fresh graduates also portray gaps in resilience skills, ability to work under pressure, to bounce back after a setback, conflict resolution, compromising and handling difficult clients/bosses. How to handle criticism, curveballs, disappointments, pressures of jobs and adapting to change in the workplace. They ought to embrace lifelong learning post-graduation and stay up-to-date on the emerging technologies and industry trends, which is a key component of career resilience. By taking online courses, enrolling in professional development workshops and attending industry conferences, graduates can keep their skills sharp and be in demand. Above all, consistent investment in terms of time and resources in continuous personal growth is imperative.

With the right skills and networks, graduates will be able to not only secure employment but have options to choose from! They will be highly competitive in the job market, if they possess the technical skills required in their trade, developed vital ‘soft skills’ and competencies, and package themselves better.

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