Here's the 'Secret Sauce' to getting your dream job
By Agnes Aineah | March 22nd 2018
If you have stepped into the Kenya Revenue Authority offices at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, you might have been served by a common figure in the taxman’s customs office.
Maritim Simon is hard to ignore. He is jovial, eloquent and good-humored. He knows when to smile and the right time to pull a straight face. He observes a passenger, gauges their mood, and chooses the best way to approach them.
Seeing him work so well with passengers in the purely communications job, Maritim passes for a professional in customer service. But the truth is that the Customs Officer is an Engineering graduate from Moi University.
At the airport’s passenger terminal, he searches passengers for any prohibited stuff and looks out for any taxable luggage.
Studying Electrical and Telecommunications Engineering more than five years ago, Maritim never saw himself in an arts profession, let alone one on the communication front.
He anticipated courses that involved mathematical calculations and shunned mandatory arts and social sciences courses.
These included the compulsory Communication Skills, Entrepreneurship and HIV/Aids units that were shared across different faculties.
Little did he know that the courses he shunned, sometimes only showing up for during examinations would end up playing a pivotal role in his career.
Maritim’s story is that of someone whose career found more bearing in soft skills than in academic qualifications. And he is not alone. Thousands of graduates pursue a particular course but end up anchoring their careers on one soft skill or the other.
Career advisers and education experts say it is sometimes courses taken less seriously in school that shapes one into the best professional they can ever be. That they equip one with the right attitudes to the changing career world, instill in them soft skills and give them a feel of what there is to pick up in school. But above all, one acquires the invaluable skill of learning to learn and the workplace adaptability that comes with it.
It is also true, according to the experts, that students realise the importance of these course units when they least expect it.
Prof Paul Shiundu, Deputy Vice-Chancellor in charge of Academics, Research and Students at Technical University of Kenya says most students take their studies with their minds fixed on their dream courses.
“Engineering students, for instance, will automatically switch their minds off anything that is not engineering in their minds. They think other courses drawn from the arts and social sciences and, simply, other fields water down their tough science courses,” Prof Shiundu says.
Similarly, he says students pursuing arts and social sciences decide that mandatory units in mathematics such as statistics and certain units in information technology are a waste of their time in school.
According to Prof Shiundu, the changing career world favours those with soft skills.
“One may be very good in engineering but the question we always ask our students is, can you communicate your knowledge in engineering and if necessary, do you also possess entrepreneurial skills to start your own business if you fail to get employed?” he says.
Past reports indicate that employers have decried the lack of soft skills in job seekers. Those who apply for, say entry-level jobs, only show up with fixed skills in their area of training and show a total lack of such soft skills as critical thinking, leadership and communication.
Even more worrying, according to research is the fact that few people at the workplace engage in side training to improve these skills.
According to the World Development Report of 2018 that sought to find out whether young workforce participated in work-related training, few benefit from workplace training.
Respondents were asked whether or not they had in a year participated in training courses, such as private skills training that lasted at least five days, which were out of the formal educational system, to improve or gain work-related skills.
In Kenya, the study found out, only about 13 per cent of workers aged between 25-44 consented to participating in workplace training while just about nine per cent of youth aged between 15-24 participated in workplace training.
According to the study, young people around the world face substantial challenges in their transition from school to work.
The ability to learn is the one skill that employers are looking for in new recruits. In the context of career adaptability, this is basically the ability to swiftly get a feel for new career demands and changing employment demands.
In a past interview with The Standard, Cambridge Assessment International Education CEO, Michael O’Sullivan said the ability to learn is one of the most important skills that ought to be cultivated in the education curriculum.
He explained that learning to learn, as an isolated skill is important because of the adaptability that it brings later in life.
According to Michael, a deficit in the ability to learn is made worse by the fact that most graduates join the job market with the wrong skills.
“Having qualifications is not the same as having skills and the young people we have these days are those with qualifications that are not useful,” said Michael.
He added: “One of the fundamental deficits in young people who also lack the right skills is the inability to be self-directed learners. Because after all, it wouldn’t be a problem having useless skills if you could easily re-educate yourself.”
Career experts classify the ability to learn among soft skills acquired through an all-inclusive curriculum and course units deemed irrelevant and which more often than not appear as sideshows in relation to one’s main course.
Cast in a strange working environment that requires little to do with engineering, Maritim says he owes his newfound success in a one-course unit he despised most at school.
He knows whose hand to shake and who to offer a warm, verbal greeting in the place of a friendly handshake.
“You must treat people differently according to their culture and in a way they are most comfortable with,” the engineering graduate recalls the statement he learnt from a communication course close to ten years ago.
With a clear grasp of communications skills, Maritim carries a relaxing air around him that perfectly suits his daily interactions with passengers at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
It is a job he says is the platform for his career life.
“I aim to grow in my career but whoever I become in life, I know this is where I started. And all credit goes to one communication unit I pursued in college. I never knew it would be this useful to me,” says Maritim.
Research has established that graduates in engineering and science-based courses are better off acquiring artistic skills to survive the changing professional landscape.
Studies show that careers in technology will be most affected as automation of jobs gradually takes over.
A report compiled by the World Economic Forum proposes a modification of the curriculum to incorporate more art-based and creativity-oriented courses at all academic stages.
“To build a pipeline of future skills, Africa’s educators should design future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate the acquisition of the right skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” reads the report.
Dubbed ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa’, the report predicts that 52 per cent of all work activities in Kenya are susceptible to automation. This is the highest figure in the study that compares Kenya to other African countries, way ahead of South Africa stands at 41 per cent, Ethiopia at 44 per cent, Nigeria at 46 per cent.
The findings released in May last year indicate that employers across the region already identify inadequately skilled workforce as a major constraint to their businesses, including 41 per cent of all firms in Tanzania, 30 per cent in Kenya, 9 per cent in South Africa and 6 per cent in Nigeria.
Michael cautions graduates against narrowing their skills as job opportunities are always bound to change by the time they complete their education. “I’d rather believe that if the same young people had skills they would be more adaptable to the needs of the employment market,” he says.
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