March 9, 2015
There is an emerging discourse in Kenya whose major theme is the ill-defined notion of the unemployability of our youth, especially college and university graduates.
In a recent Saturday Nation article, statistical estimates attributed to the Inter-University Council of East Africa are said to place the level of graduate unemployability in the East Africa region between 51 per cent in Kenya (the lowest) and 63 per cent in Uganda (the highest), with other countries (Burundi, Rwanda, and Tanzania) lying somewhere in between.
Hardly a week passes without one or two of our scholars, industrialists, or political leaders harping on this theme, to the chagrin of the unemployed youth and their parents.
The unfortunate element in this discourse is the loud implication it has for our unemployed graduates: That they are to blame for their condition (of unemployment) because they lack the necessary skills and competencies for employability.
That is, as stated in the said article, the unemployable graduates are “believed to be unfit for jobs”.
This unemployability discourse has provided our political and industrial leaders with a powerful apology for the failure of our public and private sectors to generate enough jobs for our youth.
Reflecting on this situation reminds me of an embarrassing incident I experienced during the 2001 Kisumu centenary celebrations.
There was a high-powered University of Nairobi delegation including the then Vice-Chancellor, Prof Francis Gichaga.
I was there in my capacity as the Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences at Kikuyu Campus.
For some technical reasons, I also doubled as the Dean of the Faculty of External Studies, which was in charge of extra-mural programmes in Kisumu.
The vice-chancellor had decided that we would make use of our presence in Kisumu to give a strong institutional branding to a graduation function at the Extra-Mural Centre by attending the ceremony in our ceremonial graduation gowns.
The procession started from the showground, where we had our stand, and snaked into the nearby taxi (matatu) routes.
All of a sudden, a matatu braked by our side as if to persuade us to be its passengers.
The shabbily dressed tout laughed derisively and, shouting out my name and that of Prof Obonyo Digolo, the then Dean of the Faculty of Education, asked us if we were going to witness the graduation of more people like him.
By face, we could recognise him as one of our former education students, which meant that he was a qualified graduate teacher, capable of teaching at least two subjects in a Kenyan secondary school.
We could not easily remember his name, which gave him a slight amount of discourse power over us because he could address us by name.
For a moment, we were tongue-tied. We did not know how to respond as we looked at each other, thoroughly embarrassed.
Luckily, Prof Gichaga saved us by ordering all of us to ignore the young man and continue with the procession to the Extra-Mural Centre.
Our embarrassment did not end with the vice-chancellor’s order. As we walked along the highways of Kisumu in our ceremonial gowns, we were haunted by the tout’s voice.
Somewhere deep down, in the depths of our collective consciousness, we knew that the young man was right.
For several years since the late 1990s, our education graduates had been experiencing joblessness.
Back in the 1970s and 1980s, when most of us professors had graduated, we believed that studying education was the surest way of securing a quick job after graduation.
Although matters started changing in the latter part of the ‘90s, the belief was still strong enough to make students of agriculture and veterinary medicine seek inter-faculty transfers to education in the hope of getting teaching jobs upon graduation.
The situation was already much worse in those other faculties in spite of our public leaders’ rhetoric about agriculture being the backbone of Kenya’s economy.
Today, as we are told about our graduates being unemployable, the one question that keeps tweeting inside my skull is: how many jobs are there in our public and private sectors which are vacant because our graduates are unemployable?
The Longman Exams Dictionary says that someone is unemployable if he or she does not have “the skills or qualities needed to get a job”.
In our case, we rarely see such skills and qualities publicly declared by employers in our public or private sectors.
A look at various Internet sources reveals that, in places like the US, the skills include effective communication skills, competent computer skills, time planning and management skills, ability to evaluate oneself and plan for self-improvement, and ability to work in a team.
The important point to note is that most of the skills mentioned are not directly taught as part of the course content in the programmes for which university students are registered and examined.
They are, with few exceptions, cultural aspects of the education system, acquired informally in the process of going about one’s student activities such as writing essays and term papers, participating in class discussions, planning to revise for examinations and attending student leadership seminars, visiting websites for research and social media engagements, and a wide range of similar student activities.
In essence, the acquisition of employability skills seems to start all the way from primary school, if not earlier, and continues throughout one’s life after graduation from university studies.
The performance of our fresh graduates in employability tests is a reflection, not just of what they get from our university programmes, but also what they benefit from our education system in its totality.
For example, most students get to university when their speaking, listening, reading, and writing habits are already established and hardened by years of practice and habit formation.
In some of my language and communication classes, it has always been clear to me that a good number of students can only master the theoretical content of the courses, but not the corresponding practical skills.
This, however, is not a new phenomenon.
Even in my student days, there were many people whose entry-point skills and competencies did not change significantly in spite of the theories we learnt and mastered.
Nevertheless, we got jobs soon after graduation, in my view, because the jobs were available and employers wanted to fill the vacancies.
Most of us, the ‘70s and ‘80s graduates, either acquired our employability skills on the job or were sponsored for further training by our employers.
It is manifestly unfair to expect our children, the current graduates, to have all those skills on the day of graduation.
Since I expect all of us to be reasonable enough to understand the unfairness of all these employability requirements, I believe that the unemployability discourse has a hidden motive.
I strongly believe that we engage in this discourse because it is therapeutic, silencing our consciences over the guilt we feel because of our inability to provide employment opportunities for our graduates.
In my view, we are engaging in the good old art of blaming the victim.
Pitifully, as we silence our consciences by placing the blame on the youth whom we are unable to employ, we remain totally oblivious to the damage we do to the minds of those we declare unemployable, as if we had scanned all the open employment opportunities and found nothing they could gainfully do in the world of jobs.
Source: Prof Okoth Okombo, University of Nairobi