NAIROBI, KENYA: We have been taught that education is everything. It can determine whether you get a life of plenty or one of want; a life of purpose or one of disorientation.
But education is not enough if those who are educated can’t use their knowledge to pursue success in the professional world.
Simon Ndirangu Mwangi is one of the millions of young graduates that discover an education doesn’t necessarily translate into employment.
It was this reality that inspired him to set up The Bridge Africa Group, a company that helps young people bridge the gaps between graduation and thriving in a career of their choice.
Simon, 27, speaks to Hustle on the shortfalls in our education system, the rapidly changing employment landscape and what The Bridge is doing to narrow the gaps.
What is The Bridge about?
The Bridge is an employment readiness online training programme. It empowers young people – students and recent college and university graduates – to translate what they’ve learned into actionable steps that make them competitive in the job or business market.
What’s the difference between what you teach and what a student would learn in a traditional institution?
In an institution, say a university, a student is given specific knowledge based on a degree they’ve chosen.
I studied economics and finance, and thought I was destined for a career in finance or statistics. Throughout our four years in campus, we were told how easily we would find jobs because it was a competitive degree.
But I can tell you for a fact that many of my colleagues struggled for years after graduation to get any kind of employment.
Education shouldn’t just be about imparting knowledge; it should be about teaching people how to use that knowledge once they step outside formal learning.
So what, specifically, does The Bridge teach?
We run the UReady Employability Skills Programme, which has eight online courses all dealing with workplace preparedness.
After the eight courses, there is aptitude/psychometric tests that help with interview preparedness, as well as a three-month mentorship programme that helps students create career plans that fit employment realities.
An example of one of our courses would be ‘Networking without Godfathers’. I come from a village in Laikipia, I didn’t have anyone to open doors for me in the marketplace after school, yet in Kenya we like to believe that the only way through a door is who you know.
We teach people how to open doors based on what they know, and how they can use their information to add value to their employer or their business.
I always tell my students, never ask an employer to hire you simply because you have a bachelor’s degree. Tell them, because you have a bachelor’s degree, this is what you can do for them. That’s a totally different conversation.
But isn’t it just survival of the fittest? Not everyone can be employed.
Exactly. But our education system is based on the premise that everyone will get a job if they have the right qualifications. That’s an economic reality that ceased to exit.
In our parents’ days, it was almost a guarantee that if you had a degree, you’d get a job and stay at that job for decades. In today’s world, technology and digital migration have totally transformed the scene. Not only are more skills needed to survive, but jobseekers also need to have a versatile mind set.
You mean be willing to start businesses, for example?
I tell all my students to keep their options open. However, it always astounds me when, at the end of a four-year course, an institution will invite a speaker to encourage students to start their own businesses because the job market is saturated.
I like to think of it as someone promising me that if I give them four years of my life, I will get 10,000 bags of maize in return. But at the end of those four years, they show up and say, actually maize is no longer in demand, perhaps I should invest in tomatoes instead. But I was never taught to sell tomatoes, I was taught to sell maize.
So should somebody start their own business simply because they can’t find a job? No. If they’re not equipped to get employed, how will they be equipped to run a business? We are setting our young people up for failure with this line of thinking.
So what should be done differently?
We need a versatile mind set. Say you take a course in hotel management. That course should teach you not only the workings within a hotel, but everything that encompasses that industry.
There aren’t enough hotels for everyone to become a manager or work in the finance department. Why can’t someone who studies hotel management also be taught how to supply hotels with produce, for example?
What The Bridge does is open the mind of the career seeker. There are multiple ways to become a part of your career of choice.
When did you first get the idea of The Bridge?
In 2015, I was picked by the Mandela Washington Fellowship to travel for a policy programme at the Georgia State University in the US. The fellowship aims to develop young African leaders.
When we were asked what issues surrounded the youth, many of us had the same answer: bridging the gap between school and employment.
I wanted to be a part of the solution, so when I got back to Nairobi, I quit my management consulting job to set up The Bridge.
I’ve come to learn that to provide an impactful solution to the challenges facing the youth, I need to understand the policy side of things.
As such, last year I studied advanced policy making and leadership at the University of Cambridge. I was among 50 global emerging policy leaders competitively selected into the inaugural Future Leaders Connect by the British Council.
How much did you spend to set up your platform?
My initial injection was Sh200,000, which I used on research to understand the employer market and what precisely companies looked for when a jobseeker fresh out of university walked in through their doors. I invested a further Sh200,000 to start building the online platform.
In total, I’ve put in Sh1.7 million to date, with a further Sh3 million set to come in from a new investor.
How does the company make money?
We charge Sh500 for each of our courses, or a package deal of Sh3,000 for all eight courses. This year, our aim is to enrol 20,000 students in our courses.
What was your turnover in the first year of business?
We went live with the site in April 2016. By the end of that year, we had made Sh180,000, predominantly because we were initially more focused on improving our product than populating the site.
Now, we’re up and running with more than 930 members. We’re also in talks with universities to run a student graduate programme where all their graduates will be enrolled in our course as they complete their studies.
What’s your vision for The Bridge?
Every young person finishes their studies in the hope that their investment will come back. The Bridge aims to make that a reality by consistently studying the market and the changing trends, and giving this information to future generations early enough to make a transformative impact on their lives.