• From August to December, several university students are set to graduate - from both public and private universities.
  • Employers in different organizations usually look for different skills and personalities before they hire a fresh graduate.

In the next few months leading to December, thousands of university students will graduate from various universities and colleges. Many fresh graduates are usually ill-prepared for the job market, with many employers raising concern over the quality of training. The charge is often labelled

The charge is often labelled unfair by many in academia. Prof Okoth Okombo, a linguist at the University of Nairobi, wrote in a local daily in 2014: “The performance of our fresh graduates in employability tests is a reflection not just of what they get from our university programmes but also what they benefit from our education system in its totality.”

According to the venerable professor, employability skills can be earned on the job or employers can sponsor the new employees to be trained on the specific skills as it was in the 1970s and 1980s. To him, blaming students is the old tradition of blaming the victim. However, human resource experts agree that universities should do more in preparing students for the job market. Here are the critical skills that many employers are looking for in those seeking entry-level jobs:

Marvin Sissey, who runs the Marvin Sissey Consulting Group, decries the poor communication skills of many graduates who knock on his door searching for a job at his marketing and public relations firm.

“Most job seekers lack basic understanding of how to write corporate e-mails. You can’t send them to represent you in a serious meeting. Some even make basic spelling mistakes in their letters and reports,” he says.

He has also noticed that many of them are not creative and lack critical skills in problem solving.

Marion Ng’endo, who works with Peoplelink Consultants, a job recruiting firm, concurs with Sissey that most graduates lack “soft skills”.

“Most of them can’t express themselves. Even A-students can’t communicate properly. Also, they are poor in teamwork and coordination,” she says, adding: “This gives employers a hard time finding the right candidates.”

On paper, most graduates look qualified. It is until they are given the day-to-day responsibilities that employers notice some basic but critical skills are missing.

Soft skills

Soft skills are cited by human resource consultants as the weakest link. And it is understandable. In many universities in Kenya, communication skills is taught as a mandatory common course, but with it attracts hundreds of students lumped together into a lecture hall.

It is a very impersonal experience and many students often shun it, attending it only for the mandatory marking of the attendance register. Most students go through universities without getting any useful skills on corporate communication and general communication skills.

So, what can universities do to help students acquire the skills, given the curricula is invariably too academic and copy pasted from one another with little thought to innovation and relevance to market trends?

Sissey says the first step is to ensure that more young people are given teaching positions.

“Most universities have old professors who may not be amenable to change. An electronic engineering lecturer who has been teaching for 45 years may not easily embrace the kind of ideas that people like Elon Musk are proposing, yet that is where the world is heading,” he says.

Young people will be more open to the trends in the corporate world and can routinely tune the curricula to more relevant lessons that can be helpful to students so that most of the things taught at universities don’t become irrelevant.

Go global

“Universities should engage the markets more to know what are the contemporary needs. Universities also need exchange programmes with universities outside the country,” says Sissey. He notes that we need to wean ourselves of the British Education system and experiment with Asia, American and even Latin American universities.

By the time students graduate, they should know how various economies function to inculcate global ambitions and attitudes in them.

A recent Pew Research Centre Survey of 1,408 technology and education professionals asked them the most valuable skills in the future and they suggested that such skills will be those that society can’t replicate such as creativity, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, adaptability and collaboration, according as cited in Quartz.

But are local universities prepared to impart these skills in students? What can be done?

Dr Sam Kamau of the Aga Khan Graduate School of Media and Communication says that it is possible to impart these skills in students. He recommends four steps. The first step is problem-solving or case-based instruction. He says this will encourage students to think and bring out their creative side.

“They should be given real life problems that they must solve. This will give them a foundation to be creative and critical. It also encourages team work,” he says.

This approach is commonly used in law schools, business and can be employed in journalism among other disciplines. It is a step back from the common lecturing method and should be encouraged more.

The second approach is coming up with incubation and innovation centres. This will help students to incubate their ideas, and can help universities stop being reliant on school fees, since some of the ideas that students come up with can be commercialised.

At the moment, universities are highly commercialised and this may not be an immediate priority. Most universities at the moment are not interested in quality ideas, but more on income. Local universities like Strathmore are already collaborating with companies such as Safaricom to fund the incubation centres.

This is tied to research. Dr Kamau recommends research to be two-way: from the university as well as from the industry so that the sectors can strike a symbiotic relationship, unlike presently where most universities are engaged in sometimes irrelevant research.

Thirdly, there should be more structured internships. Presently, very few students get meaningful internship while in university. Part of the reason is the high number of class sizes that makes it difficult in securing internships in the ever-shrinking and at times stagnant job market sector.

Internships can give students on-the-job training. This again calls for more engagement between universities and the industry.

Finally, reliance on exams should be reduced. According to Dr Kamau, the 8-4-4 system with its overreliance on examinations as the only skills testing method has done a great disservice to many students as it is very taxing.

We should find other ways of ensuring that students don’t just read in order to pass exams. We should also encourage different approaches to instructing students as opposed to lecturing.

“We should shift the burden to students and give them more collaborative tasks to make them think,” says Dr Kamau.

However, with insufficient funding, universities have a long way into adapting these methods. Class sizes in the foreseeable future at public universities will continue to increase. The attachment and internship opportunities may not be as forthcoming given the economic performance of the country (more companies are laying employees off).

But urgently, universities must find a way to teach students proper communication skills, team work, professionalism, creative and critical thinking skills. The skills will serve them well beyond graduation.