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Internships are not the primary solution to unemployment

By University Lecturer | August 27th 2017

The thinking is that work experience is all that separates many young people from jobs.

The Government has set aside money for internships to give graduates work experience. Some universities increasingly require their students to take internship before graduation to get a taste of work and tone down the idealism of student life.

The thinking behind internship is that work experience is all that separates many young men and women from jobs. This can be contested. We have focused too much on the job adverts in the newspapers, which mostly require work experience. In reality, experience is necessary but not sufficient reason to secure a job.

Skills more than experience will get you a job. Let me demonstrate: I got my first job offer in Form 2. I had the skills the market needed. I gave the offer to a certain man who got a job at Mumias Sugar Company. Is he still there? Ndibo, I think was his name. Students with right skills get jobs before they graduate.

Wycliffe Nyakina of Institute of Human Resource Management adds: “Attitude towards work is emerging as the major cause of unemployment. Use of social media and betting have diverted the attention of many young graduates from serious issues that comprise work environment (ethics). Technology has made work easier, but killed creativity necessary for work.”

Lots of young men get any skills first, then hope the market will adjust to accommodate them. The market is too big to adjust to individual needs.

Take another example. Asians have been doing very well in the US job market. They acquire the skills needed by the market, often science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) based. With the right skills, the world becomes your market.

Ever wondered why most Kenyans abroad have jobs? And why joblessness seems to affect men more than women?

Marketable courses

Paradoxically, and sadly, students expect institutions to match their curriculum to the job market. They rarely do. The most marketable courses are the most expensive to mount or teach; for instance, engineering or medicine. They rarely attract lots of students.

Private investors in education prefer courses that need just a room and a lecturer. Public institutions do the same.

With the population of young men and women booming and the residue prestige of being a graduate intact, they just admit them. They can worry about jobs after graduation. You could also suggest to them that another degree would make them more marketable.

The Government can take the risk of investing in science and technology, the reason most public universities have courses in STEM.

The risk of making internship compulsory is that it will become a formality — just take it to graduate, not to get skills. Unless students are guaranteed a job after graduation, they are unlikely to take it seriously.

They are also likely to face hostility from current workers who see them as a threat to their jobs. Remember they are young and energetic and, in whispers, some are beautiful.

Internships can also lead to exploitation, with interns seen as cheap labour. It goes further. If internships can lead to jobs, interns should actually pay for it. Some firms do ask them to pay since the companies train them with their own resources.

Interns can also derive value from brand association. Interning at a Fortune 500 firm would open lots of job opportunities. This is no different from attending a top university in the world.

Internships could also create an underground job market. If I know there is a future vacancy, why not bring a relative as an intern and give him or her a head start once the job is advertised? Can we decree that you can’t get a job where you interned?

Top universities do not employ their graduates to stop “insider trading” but also to make their graduates entrepreneurial, reduce inbreeding and increase diversity of faculty — all for the benefit of the students.

Could we argue that internships interfere with the labour market? Since interns are paid less than the permanent workers, that could depress wages. Sounds funny, but why not hire interns; they are cheaper and at times more productive because they are looking for full-time jobs.

By demanding that firms take in interns, we interfere with the laws of supply and demand. What of graduates taking courses that are unlikely to get them jobs?

Why can’t we leave the market to sort things out? Has the job market been so inefficient that we need the visible hand of the Government to correct it? Can we publish a list of the expected jobs in the next 10 years and the skills needed so that students do not pursue courses randomly?

The US Bureau of Labour Statistics does that. Check it out.

Address problem

Let us address the real problem. It is not lack of work experience that has led to joblessness. It is lack of marketable skills and a simple fact; we are not creating jobs.

As industrialist Chris Kirubi explained recently at a conference, creating jobs is easy. Create demand for products and services. Those who make the products, distribute it, add value or offer services get the jobs. The higher the demand, the more the jobs.

You can create more jobs by focusing on the global market. Internet through e-commerce makes it easy to reach a global market. Just ask Jack Ma.

Reaching into a global market demands you to offer quality services and products. Ask Japanese, Koreans and now Chinese how they got into the global markets and created millions of jobs. That was the dream of East African Community, a bigger market, more jobs.

Unfortunately, we even find it hard to sell products and services across counties, preferring Jack Ma to Jack Maina.

Internship is a short term solution; the long term solution is to grow the economy which is much harder than decreeing that firms should take up interns.

After all, graduates do not want internships; they want full time jobs. Ask them.

-The writer is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Nairobi.

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