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Smart but unemployable

By Ian Katusiime

When a graduate with the right theory meets an employer looking for practical skills By Ian Katusiime

Makerere University’s 65th graduation ceremony was the usual excited hubbub of graduands in their black gowns and mortarboards and hoods of many colours. In the medley was Isaac who was graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration. Surprisingly, he was not looking upbeat about it.

Isaac majored in marketing so I ask him what he hopes to do with some of his recently acquired marketing skills and he replies.

“I am not thinking about it now,” he says quite nonchalantly about what prospects are in the future for him.


He says he did his internship at a three-star hotel in Nakawa where he was placed in the marketing department but he feels he did not gain much as the time passed passively.

Away from gloomy Isaac, I met Grace who was graduating in the same course with the same major. Even as a student, Grace was working with an audit firm in Kampala as an accounts assistant for two years now. Her work involved her in the daily administrative functions of the firm and she says she once interned at a bank during her course. Grace looks excited and sounds hopeful about the future. When asked about her gloomy colleagues, she is clear about the problem.

“The problem with us is that we leave school with the expectation of scooping white collar jobs. Very few venture out in starting businesses where the real and most important skills are acquired,” she says.

Grace appears to be one of the very few graduates who have a semblance of what the 21st century job market in Uganda and globally is about. She understands that with the little but valuable two years’ experience she has under her belt, she is a step ahead of the average university leaver.

For Isaac, his demeanour and state of mind about the job market mirrors the resignation of most of today’s graduates. He represents the lot that most managers and employers complain about.

Charles Ocici, the Executive Director of Enterprise Uganda; a training, mentoring, business advisory body established under the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Enterprise Africa project,  has seen both types  of graduates.

He says the technical skills employers are looking for in employees are mostly acquired on the job and few people will come with those and put to them to the best of their ability.

“A construction engineer can only acquire real skills when they go out in the field and practice,” he says.

He says the same applies to the workplace behaviour and ethics that the employers value. “For instance people who try to drive themselves; have self-initiative, self-supervision, arriving at work before 8am,” he says, “If some people have to be checked on, it is irritating to the employer.”

He says the job market needs people who loves challenges and are willing to work at the job like it is their own enterprise.

“A skilled and competent employee is one who does not mind about the title of their job but gives it their whole as if they were a cleaner or a CEO in equal measure,” he says, adding that such a person exhibits an attitude of high ethics and integrity and has a sense of what is right and wrong. He refutes the misconception that one has to be very talented and productive to thrive in a job. He says, unfortunately, the majority of people today looking for jobs are too raw on the basics of how to survive in a job market.

“Having a job is more than just putting figures together and speaking good English, employees should concern themselves with attracting more customers to the enterprise.” Ocici says. He says performing well at a job goes beyond the paper qualifications and partly explains why, for instance, people who used to be top of the class rarely become CEOs.

Looking for wrong skills

Unfortunately, it appears that employers too are unclear about how to spot and nurture good employees. Even as there is a general concern about the quality of graduates being churned out from the university, a number of employees harp on about pointless issues, including poorly written application letters. Most employers miss the point that they are not hiring the candidate to write application letters or speak good English.

Simon Kaheru, a director of a digital media agency which employs a significant number of young people says he looks for critical skills aimed at problem solving. Even in popular courses like Information Technology and Computer Science which appear to have ready market in in a rapidly developing world of digital world, the critical skills are not acquired at degree level.

Kaheru muses that some infants already have great IT skills because they can manipulate computer programmes to create designs.

“The shortcomings displayed by graduates are longer term and not just academic,” he says.    “I would like to deal with fresh graduates who are poised to learn and develop professionally, and exhibit proficiency in basics such as computer usage, research and analytical thinking,” he says.  He says these are glaringly lacking among people looking for employment.

The education system compounds the problem by not adequately tailoring courses to match the job market. Many unemployed people show a total lack of creativity and self-initiative. And the numbers keep growing year in year out. In January 2014 alone, 6,713 graduated from Kyambogo University while 13,600 graduated from Makerere University.

At Makerere University, which is Uganda’s largest institution of higher learning, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences has the highest number of students numbering about 10,000 students.  Here, they are taught courses like Bachelor of Arts in Arts, Social Sciences, Development Studies, and Ethics and Human Rights. It is clear to both student and university dons that the majority pursuing these courses may have to work extra hard to get employment if surveys about job market survival are anything to go by.  A survey carried out from December 2012 to January 2014 by the Inter University Council of East Africa revealed that most East African graduates were ill-prepared for employment. In Uganda, 63% were found to lack job market skills.

The regulator of the region’s institutions of higher learning said that they lacked employability skills-technical mastery and basic work-related capabilities.

The survey was conducted  by Federation of Uganda Employers (FUE), the umbrella body of employers in Uganda which also recommends employees to new companies in Uganda.

The government appears to be aware of the looming crisis but going about it the wrong way.  In 2013, for example, through the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, it launched the Youth Livelihoods Programme to give unemployed youth money to engage in entrepreneurial ventures. The trouble, however, is that most of the youth  have studied courses like Social Sciences and Industrial Psychology and do not have the slightest idea of how to make an investment to generate more cash.

Michael Niyitegeka, an IT consultant, says the problem today is complacency and people are getting carried away by whatever they earn and no serious consideration is given to the future.

“Today if someone is assured of where his next meal will come from, they do not have to worry about what skills to employ to improve their output on the job. In Kenya, the cost of living is higher but it is not the same situation. People there work much harder and that’s why people complain of how they are increasingly invading our workplace.” He says this attitude that has eaten itself into the psyche of the new graduates looking for jobs.

Vocational skills missing

Other experts blame the absence of vocational training in higher institutions of learning which instead promote elitist education as opposed to pragmatic skills. Little however has been done to rectify the situation, by for example, opening vocational training schools around the country. Instead, more and more universities are springing up across the nation specialising in the same courses.  Irene Birungi the Public Relations Officer of FUE says the students lack both soft and hard skills. “At colleges or universities, students do not have the chance to experience the use of tools they study about,” she noted, “A few visits made to the industry do not translate into skills acquisition immediately.”

She says young employees should possess organisational skills such as working under pressure and beating deadlines if they are to meet the demands of the current workplace and advises young people to be willing to join as interns in order to get the opportunity to prove themselves to the employers.

However there is a dilemma. The contradiction is that many times industries are not willing to offer their industrial sites for students to learn the skills. Birungi says this is why Uganda needs a Skills Development Authority if the market really needs a ‘ready to go employee’.

“Industry does not want to engage in additional training at first acquisition course, they must do on-the- job training but remember companies are cutting costs on such things,” she says.

Many graduates today also shun the practice of internship once they have left school. Most do it only if it is mandatory in their course study. Unpaid internship is looked at as a burden because they expect to earn right away once they get their first jobs.

Emmanuel Masaba, a marketing and communications consultant with Stanbic Bank backs the interning and volunteering way as the best way to acquire skills that are developed in work environments.

Masaba also says there is a mismatch with what is taught at the university compared to the actual challenge that awaits the graduates in the field. “Usually the University will give you the theoretical part of your Education and open up your ability to think research and find solutions to challenges in life. This is a good foundation however; it is not enough to deliver in most institutions.”

The way to solve the unemployment problem, therefore, appears to go beyond merely requiring universities to equip students with relevant skills for the world today. It requires employers to recognise that good employees are made in the workplace and not in the classroom.

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