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‘Soft skills’ make graduates employable



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A skills mismatch survey carried out by the Federation of Kenya Employers (FKE) and published last December revealed that many corporate bodies are establishing academies to retrain fresh graduates so as to make them suitable for the roles they are appointed to.

The employers spend an average of Sh20,000 per head on the training, it said.

The report also showed that, every year, our education and training institutions churn out tens of thousands of graduates who end up in careers for which they were not trained.

This anomaly leads to mass unemployment owing to an educational mismatch between the knowledge that the graduates possess and the demands of the market.

In light of this report, it is imperative to review efforts of specific universities to understand where their alumni go after graduation.

A 2017 employability survey of employers, faculty, staff and alumni of the United States International University – Africa (USIU-Africa) showed 72.6 per cent of their former students were in full-time employment, 79.8 per cent of them in jobs directly or somewhat related to their majors.

Such a report connotes an interest in equipping students with skills that will help them navigate the highly competitive job market.

Contrary to this endearing interest of private universities in the success of their students, and the corresponding design of relevant market-driven academic programmes, we have witnessed the most damning report of university education yet.

The Ministry of Education has revealed that 107 university programmes with a collective capacity of 6,721 students are on the chopping block.

They either did not attract applications or no student was selected to pursue the degrees as they are considered uncompetitive.

Nine of the courses attracted no application from students who sat the Kenya Certificate Of Secondary Education exam in 2018 while, for the remaining 98, no student was enrolled among some 50 universities.

Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha directed the Commission for University Education (CUE) to review the programmes with a view to scrapping the unnecessary ones.

There are calls for universities to align their programmes to the competency-based curriculum being rolled out, lest the situation renders our higher education defunct.

The main deficiency afflicting university education in Kenya does not necessarily lie in the type but training through which courses are presented.

While most degree courses are developed, delivered and tested with a bias towards academic excellence, the job market gives preference to transferable or “soft” skills.

Soft skills can be loosely defined as character traits, attitudes and behaviours as opposed to technical aptitude and knowledge.

These are the attributes that help workers adapt to new jobs, overcome obstacles, develop productive relationships with their co-workers and supervisors and thrive in the workplace.

They are called “transferable” skills because they are essential to a successful completion of a student’s university programme and can be transferred from the university setup to the job market and from one job to another.

Despite public universities getting the first priority in selecting students and so ending up with the lion’s share of the crème de la crème of high school leavers, the private ones are giving them a run for their money when it comes to producing employable graduates.

This is backed by a 2013 study by Moi University’s School of Education.

The findings, presented at the Transforming African Higher Education for Graduate Employability and Socio-Economic Development conference in Libreville, Gabon, in 2013, noted that graduates from private universities are more competent and exude high personal confidence as opposed to their public university counterparts.

Perhaps this finding stems from the efforts by private universities such as heavy investment in co-curricular and student support programmes — like career services.

Beyond adhering to the curriculum approved by the CUE, universities need to move away from ‘academic spoon-feeding’ and start paying attention to skills that promote self-drive among students, a key preference by employers.

Other soft skills that set apart employable graduates are motivation, initiative, commitment and enthusiasm.

Besides, university students need to understand that the most important outcome of their education is not getting a degree but ways in which they can use their education to change themselves positively.

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