Degrees won’t give you job, skills will…probing Nigerian graduates’ “unemployable” tag

By Ugwu Ikenna

“The best career advice to give to the young is ‘find out what you like doing best and get someone to pay you for doing it’” – Katharine Whitehorn.

Every year, university students graduate and sprint into the country’s bulged labour base. Jobberman, a leading recruitment agency in West Africa, put the number of students that graduate Nigeria’s tertiary institutions annually at an intimidating 500,000 young graduates. These people, immediately enter the nation’s imploding labour circle – and there are those who studied abroad and return home to compete for jobs that are hardly available. The sad reality, however, is that the labour market is overwhelmed. So, you ask: what happens to the teeming youths after years spent in “painful” academic experience?  You imagine the high risk and implications of growing number of youths without meaningful occupation. The nation is at risk. You know!

There is sufficient literature explaining this threat and warning of its impact on individuals, family life and the nation’s economy. Yet, the job “scarcity” is just one side of the problem coin. The other side, the bigger problem, is that while graduates lament paucity of job opportunities, the employers at the other end whine and wail about the “unemployable” status of most Nigerian graduates. Reality check!

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This, invariably is an indictment on the nation’s education policies, programs and processes (where they exist) of transition from educational institutions to relevant occupational industries; the quality of instructions and the creative quality of students. On the employers’ claim, the excuse has been the same: that today’s graduates lack certain “requisite skills” – a shortage that exposes knowledge gap – for sustainable employment.

But what exactly does it mean to be unemployable? According to the Microsoft Encarta Dictionary, to be unemployable means “lacking the skills, education or ability to get job.” The Collins COBUILD Dictionary is more expressive and intriguing. It says: “someone who is unemployable does not have a job and is unlikely to get a job, because they do not have the skills or abilities that an employer might want.” With this, it is easier to see why, for the most part, most graduates are yet unemployed; we see that it is not degrees that guarantee jobs but skills. It explains why, despite limited job openings, employers believe that today’s graduates do not possess relevant attributes that facilitates gaining and maintaining worthwhile employment into the few available openings.

What’s the issue?

The blame of a swarm, ignorant, “unemployable” young graduates and the responsibility of building knowledgeable, skilled and industry-relevant graduates cannot entirely reposed on the education’s tertiary institutions. The error is a collective tragedy, and so the remedy inevitably must be a shared responsibility. In line with this, let’s go back to the days of little beginning and see what impact:

Without doubt, tertiary education institutions cannot solve the nation’ job crises alone. A co-ordinated action across all sectors is needed. Clearly, governments have made deliberate effort at improving literacy by increasing access to basic education, thereby fairly achieving equity of access which has been a pressing concern. The result is the Universal Basic Education (UBE) programme introduced in 1999 but couldn’t take off for legal concerns until 2004. But access is not enough. Rapid expansion of primary education exposes a reactive attempt at fixing a deficient and ailing education system. The approach unveils fully the danger of “just pulling down of the fences” without a flit of attention to quality. A research publication by the British Council reveals the essence and necessity of solid educational foundation:

“A university degree certificate can open doors, but without a rich learning experience underpinning the degree, it cannot change lives, release potentials and transform societies.”

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So, how instrumental is the primary and secondary education in preparing young people for life after school?

It’s no obscurity or surprise that most young people invade the university academic scene with stack ignorance of self, and without an inkling of what appeals to them in terms of natural ability and aptitude. It is not also untrue that most of them go in unguided on appropriate career paths. So, they key into the tragedy that is the status quo of “make sure your CGP is high to ensure good grades and then graduate”, with illusionary anticipation that good grades guarantee “good” jobs – an obsession for certificate clothed in phony hope for jobs.

Elsewhere in Singapore, the education ministry is reportedly working hard in a “steady overhaul process” to transform what it branded “pressure-cooker system” which according government, has had a strong focus on marks instead of a child’s holistic development. Getting ahead with the introduction of the UBE means that our children should be increasingly encouraged to understand and express themselves. This would mean creating inclusive learning platforms and opportunities that inspire applied learning, development of character and life skills. Out of class learning experiences such as organising cohort camps to learn, say, how to cook simple meals, how to express one’s self, develop creative skills and teamwork; how to build resilience and friendship helps build children’s aptitude.

But while children engage in outdoor experiences, teachers must provide big caveat that ensure they “do not just study the flowers, but also stop to smell the flowers and wonder at their beauty.” Creativity naturally always spring from a curious and inquisitive mind. The idea of this is to help children develop interest beyond reading, writing and arithmetic; to branch out and explore other interests and passion, and eventually be ready for the future.

Unfortunately, Nigeria’s education institutions have gained unhealthy reputation for being competitive and focused on grades. When government scraped Post UTME screening and resorted to using WAEC/NECO as qualifications alongside JAMB grade, it became a national obsession to score “A” s and at least “B”s in WAEC/NECO examinations in order to reach the set mark. But nobody cared a hoot about the level of corruption it spurred among teachers, examiners, principals, and students in the sector. It is no surprise that even state governments boast of and use numbers of “A”s and “B”s scored by their students in performance assessment. This “A-student” gets into the university and becomes his true self – a helpless dumb!

If we are to make progress, things have to change.

Looking ahead

It is time to make pupils and students understand that they are in school primarily to develop themselves, build character and skills appropriate for job situations; that education is not equal to the number of “A”s aced or a paper certificate that claims you have been certified in “character and learning”. There is more to it than such paper tags handed to us. Rote learning and memorizing should give way to applying textbook knowledge to real-world situations and more current content. In essence, students must grow beyond the proclivity for grades. Theoretical education must find expression in practical application to life issues. Albert Einstien was unequivocal in his statement that “education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned” and we must understand this.

A picture showing Nigerian graduates in search of jobs (Photo Credit: The Glitters Online)

In addition to foundational skills like literacy and numeracy, students need competencies like collaboration, creativity and problem-solving, and character qualities like persistence, curiosity and initiative. This will get them ahead.

The missing impact of industries

The link between education and industry can be bridged only if industry’s requirements are incorporated in education. School curriculum should be tailored towards and in sync with the demands of the ever-changing industry such that having passed through the education challenge, a graduate should be able to fit into work situations. Students who often complained that some lecturers are tough are usually confronted with distasteful surprise. My uncle often talked of the hard turf of work environment: “You think your lecturers are tough? Wait till you get a boss!” Truth is, when you break into the industry unprepared, some of the challenges will almost make you feel you are a bum.

In the main, employers too must share in this “graduate unemployability” challenge. Part of the organised public and private sector responsibility is to work to improve the pool from which they continually draw a major share of their work force. America’s Federal Reserve Bank annually organises conference to this effect. But we belong to a different world where all we do is complain and not take responsibility.

Finally, we must begin to change the mindset. Some children are brought up with the mindset that grades determine future success – “study hard, work your way into a university and you would get a good job”. These are misconception that, in our unbridled haste to get to the “top” we have fed ourselves and our children. And it hunts us so bad now. The world has moved far beyond theoretical knowledge to creative and applied knowledge.

The education policies and programmes should incorporate broader skill – especially for the future – initiatives which advocate skills over mere qualifications. This will involve platforms that encourage students to explore their interest and passion from young age. So, it starts with the primary and secondary schools laying the foundation for our children, then the tertiary institutions takeing over to discover and nurture such interests and aspirations, impart relevant knowledge in them, horn their skills and prepare them for the real world. It is against this background that young people can find jobs without sweat, and embark on continuous journey of learning, updating or even finding new paths.

Rwanda – a little country rising from the ashes of (1994) genocide – in its continuing effort to build a knowledge economy is preparing her young people for the future. In a “Skill for the Future” education symposium in Kigali, her education policy makers appreciate that education is moving beyond the transactional approach of sitting and clearing exams, to imbuing that love for learning. A report from the symposium quotes its education advocators saying, “The future we are preparing children for is going to be very complex, and textbook knowledge will not always get them through”.

In the end, having gone through these triangular walls of education, young people will not be prepared or fit for job market if the education experience could not, for the least, equip them with knowledge and skills relevant for today’s and of course future industries. One thing is certain, most employers are not looking for the person with highest grade. No. They value skill, teamwork and creativity. They crave for problem-solving ability, resilience and empathy. This is what will bring jobs to the very door of a young graduate, not any paper that claims he has been certified both in “character and learning” – which is the only thing of which most graduates, unfortunately can boast.

Ikenna Ugwu is a public affairs commentator. He is the lead convener of The Revolutionaries Movement and a passionate advocate for #SDGs. Contact @frankyiykman@yahoo.co.uk Twits@Derevscourt

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