Management Magazine
Hands on Management

The paradox in the Kenyan education experience

Are soft skills being overlooked by the current education system?

By ELIZABETH MUGUCHU 

As a HR practitioner, I have often struggled with whether to give young fresh graduates a chance or to hire experienced hands. The thought of having young inexperienced employees struggling to understand basics at the work space while at the same time trying to keep productivity at its highest is daunting. But then, we were all given a chance by someone and we owe it to the next generation to provide them with opportunities to learn and grow in their careers. The reality though is that our fresh graduates are not prepared for the job market. It’s not about technical and theoretical skills, or about their cognitive ability but rather their soft skills – being able to relate well with others, form meaningful work relationships, present a character that can be trusted and relied on. 

Shift in learning experience

So where is our education system failing us? When I look back at my own educational experience, it is with mixed reactions. You cannot compare the learning environment, the curriculum, the teaching style with what is experienced in schools these days. We spent a lot of time interacting and learning from each other the basic social skills needed to survive.  We learnt how to share, how to work in groups and how to fight and make friends appropriately. My experience is quite different to how my parents remember their schooling experience, as they had opportunities that most of us would dream about, with a light general curriculum and opportunity to specialise later on, making the educational journey almost like a discovery of one’s interests, passion, and eventually career choice. Between the 1950 to 1970 in Kenya, with some effort, one could easily get a full scholarship to study out of the country, and once you were educated – whether internationally or not – the opportunities for work and growth came knocking on your door. The curriculum was also different providing practical skills in agriculture, sewing, arts and crafts that enabled many to start small businesses to supplement their income, and lest we forget the passion to pursue a great calling was imbedded in their minds.

Market needs social skills

The situation now is quite different as a university education does not assure you a job, (think the unemployment rate) – nor does it assure you growth within your organisation.  Experience and networking are more valued today, but do not form part of any curriculum.  Our education system is basically theoretical with practical subjects few and far in between.  Should you be introverted by nature, you could end up going through school without joining any social-clubs or participating in any events that would enable you to network and gain exposure to the outside world. You would still be considered to have successfully navigated the educational system, especially if you manage to get a high grade. As parents, we therefore struggle to ensure our children attend the right private schools to rub shoulders with the who’s – who and hopefully make friends with the potential presidents and business leaders.  

Those without a silver spoon have to work hard and get the right papers in order to finally get that job that they covet. They then grow through the organisations sometimes suffering incompetent well connected bosses along the way as they build a name and a reputation for themselves while making long lasting work connections at each level to help hoist them to the top. The journey is long and hard.

Education a raw deal?

So, the question remains are we giving our youth a raw deal? With the rising number of Kenyans going back to school trying to ensure they have an edge in the job market, will this be enough to get them to the next level? To make matters more interesting, the concept of home schooling comes into play, with more and more parents opting to educate their children from home to ensure that they get quality education guided by their parents from the comfort of their home.  Let’s look at the data; with around 50,000 graduates churned out every year from the 22 public universities, 14 chartered private universities and 13 universities with Letter of Interim Authority (LIA) in Kenya, and with around 80 per cent of the population being under thirty-five years old, with an average of five years to secure a job, is it not time we finally thought of an education system that is closely linked to the needs of not only the country but also the needs and passions of our youth?

There are many aspects to consider, but dear recruiter, let us be gentle when hiring and if possible let’s give the young interns a chance. Let’s mentor them and coach them to be greater than we are, and let’s give them opportunities to shine and grow. We may not be the solution, but we can offer hope – a band aid- to many as they navigate their careers and find their way.

Elizabeth Muguchu is the People Manager at Andela Kenya. Email: elizabethmuguchu@gmail.com

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