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Use apprenticeship to launch a tech career

By Peter Wairagu | April 19th 2020

As a graduate from an IT or tech school, how can you set yourself up for success? How do you start off right?

First, 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 tarmac – 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 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.

Myth of overnight success

Soon, displaying unusual creativity and charisma, he and a couple of comrades drive the company to multi million-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 as well as repeated attempts, including failures, at entrepreneurship.

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, whether for employment or entrepreneurship.

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 cooperation, 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. This approach was developed because society accepted that skills take time to build and that the best way to learn is by doing.

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 one, 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.

- Peter Wairagu is the Principal at the Africa Digital Media Institute, providing Africa’s digital generation with the training, mentorship and platform to turn their passion to a profession. 

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