Does long-term unemployment jeopardise job-readiness of graduates?

07 Oct 2018

With a reported 87 000 (and counting) university graduates never having entered the job market, there can be no doubt that they have developed thick layers of what in formal employment would be the equivalent of ring rust. Naturally, this complicates their job prospects and so, should they be demanding jobs or to be reskilled?

In the analysis of Jowitt Mbongwe, a Gaborone-based HR consultant, there are many more factors that determine whether a graduate is ready to enter the job market “and I am not sure not having found a job after graduating is the most important.” He adds that such misfortune may actually be a blessing in disguise because it motivates one to go the extra mile in making oneself job-ready. He cites the example of a graduate who reads and researches extensively and generally keeps themselves in the loop about developments in their field in order to prevent developing layers of professional rust.

What Mbongwe, who is the Managing Director of Global Consult, a management consulting firm, sees as the major stumbling block with regard to most Botswana-trained graduates is that most of the programmes they would have enrolled for are overly academic and neither industry-related nor industry-informed.

“So upon completing their studies, they are still not job-ready,” says Mbongwe, describing in the next breath, another condition that imperils the job prospects of these candidates.

For employers, hiring can be an expensive undertaking because new employees have to be attuned to the company culture. The more commonly used term is “induction” but Mbongwe uses a different, less common one – onboarding. A thorough onboarding programme is designed to integrate a new employee into organisational culture and acquaint him with the clientele s/he would be dealing with. Mbongwe describes induction as being superficial because it entails little more than acquainting a new employee with the physical layout of their new workplace. Onboarding is more elaborate, comes at a higher cost to the company and Mbongwe says that graduates who are not job-ready – and he says there are “a lot” of them, are expensive to hire. Making them job-ready can mean that companies have to incur costs on behalf of educational institutions that should have done the job themselves.

A lecturer at a college of education doubts that teacher graduates who spent years without practice would be able to adapt easily. The first issue he cites is confidence. In his judgement, someone who completed their teacher training a decade ago and never taught thereafter, would not have enough confidence to stand in front of a classroom and teach in a competent manner. However, supposing that one musters such confidence, it might soon dissipate as the teacher realises that students know a lot more that teacher did when they were the same educational level.

“Today’s primary school students know a lot of things,” the lecturer says.

Indeed, today’s children have many more sources of knowledge (internet, social acquaintances, television and more books) than their schoolteachers. This is one of the reasons some have cited as justification to lower the voting age because at 16, children know about politics and the world than someone the same age did 20 years ago.

A well-meaning initiative by the European Union (EU) may also complicate things for teachers who have not been practising after graduating in the past couple of years. Years ago, gay students wouldn’t be open about their sexuality but nowadays, through a little-known, EU-financed in-service training programme, teachers at government schools have been sensitized about this issue. The rationale is that suppressing sexuality hinders student’s development in many ways. The EU funding is designed to make the school environment supportive and encourages students to come out and express their sexuality freely. The lecturer says that a graduate teacher who has not received this sensitisation on account of never having practised - and likely has an “old-school, a-boy-is-a-boy mindset”, would display an unhelpful attitude towards gay students.

Away from politics, Comfort Molosiwa is a businessman and hydrogeologist who has worked in major engineering projects. The first point he makes is that long-term unemployment among graduates means that when an opportunity comes along, they will not be job-ready because university learning has to be applied within a real-life work environment within a short period of time. To that, he adds that staying jobless for a long time can have the effect of dampening enthusiasm, an attribute one needs when they enter the job market. Like Mbongwe, he echoes the point about the quality of education being the major problem.

“Our university graduates are a disappointment - some of them are actually functionally illiterate because they can’t even construct a simple English sentence or draft a coherent letter,” says Molosiwa, who is the Managing Director of Comfort Molosiwa & Associates, an engineering consultancy with offices in Gaborone and Palapye. “What does that tell you about the quality of our education system?”

He reiterates the point about education system that is not aligned to industry needs and is still caught in a time warp of a period when students were trained for white-collar jobs.

“We are still training students for white-collar jobs that are no longer available,” Molosiwa says.

His conception of industry-relevant training is expansive. He says that graduates who receive such education should themselves be able to start their own businesses and create jobs.

As unhelpful, he adds, is a society that has institutionalised dependency. His explanation of this point is that graduates expect somebody to hire them and if that doesn’t happen, they sit at home and claim helplessness. Aligned to that is pursuing a programme of study that one is not passionate about and in elaborating on this point, Molosiwa cites both himself and his daughter as perfect examples. In his case, after obtaining hydrogeology degrees in the United Kingdom and the United States, Molosiwa came back home to work for the government but quit after only seven years to go into the private sector. What motivated that decision, he says, was that he had been given a supervisory role which he felt hindered practical application of a vocation he was passionate about. While his daughter has a degree in business management and sociology, her real passion lies in cooking. She decided to pursue her passion and now working in South Africa, “as a professional chef who caters for big corporations.” Molosiwa uses these examples to illustrate the larger point that one can pursue a passion outside their formal educational training in order to break into the job market.

As many people familiar with the life work and legacy of the late Patrick Van Rensburg, Molosiwa mourns the death of the “education with production” model at the hands of the government. In their early years and in addition to academic subjects, Swaneng Hill School, Madiba Secondary School and Shashe River School equipped students with vocational education they could use to earn a living. In “Letters from Botswana: 1966-1974”, Sheila Bagnall, an Englishwoman who was the Swaneng Deputy Principal, tells a fascinating story of how this model of education worked. Recording events contemporaneously, the book - which was edited by Sandy Grant, a historian and Mmegi columnist – notes how Van Rensburg was unhappy with the coming into being of a private school for children of the elite (Maruapula) because its method of instruction was unsuited to the needs of newly-independent Botswana. (Interestingly, President Mokgweetsi Masisi went to Maruapula.) Molosiwa agrees that Botswana’s education deteriorated when it shifted from education with production to churning out office workers who now can’t get jobs.