Saturday, July 31, 2021

MP holds forth on less-told truth about graduate unemployment

In his contribution to the Diamond Cutting Bill, the Thamaga-Moshupa MP, Palelo Motaosane, made a profound if under-explored point whose elaboration wouldn’t sit well with one too many unemployed (and understandably disgruntled) university graduates.

Lamenting graduate unemployment, Motaosane said that what is even more heartbreaking about this situation is that these graduates have to compete for jobs with “highly experienced people.” Tied to “highly experienced” will be “highly educated” and both these attributes are hardly ever acknowledged when the very genuine case for graduate employment is made. The larger point the MP was making is that the job market is more receptive to people with the skills and education that people fresh out of university don’t have.

This issue has never been dealt with substantively and increasingly nowadays, some graduates make entitled demands for “ancestors to make way for us.” In doing so, however, there are certain issues that they either overlook or choose to ignore.

Some of those ancestors went to elite international universities (think Harvard, Yale and Oxbridge) and more than a few of them have years-long international work experience. They grew up and schooled in a period of time when education was highly valued and learners were more serious about education, not least because it was a ticket out of poverty in what was then dirt-poor Botswana. Over the years, they have read possibly hundreds of books from start to finish and are able to communicate in clear, whole and concise sentences.

Conversely, a good many of the unemployed graduates went to fly-by-night universities which are always in the news for the wrong reasons. On the rainy 2013 day that FNB Stadium in Johannesburg was hosting Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, the writer encountered a know-all journalism graduate from one of the major fly-by-night universities, one of the harbinger ones. He was working at a restaurant (officially an unemployed graduate) and what had started as a cordial customer-employee discussion about journalism soon turned into a mindless debate. He was vociferous in his claim that Gomolemo Motswaledi, the late Botswana Movement for Democracy president, had worked as a journalist at one point and that a newspaper the size of Sunday Standard is called a “broadband” and not “broadsheet.” It has been the writer’s personal experience that some media studies graduates from the university that he went, don’t even know what a “draft” (a preliminary version of a piece of writing) is.

For the record, Motswaledi had worked at the University of Botswana, his career peaking as Executive Assistant to Vice Chancellor Prof Sharon Siverts. Sunday Standard is a broadsheet, that being a format of a newspaper characterized by long vertical pages measuring 560 millimetres or more.

Officially, the graduate waiter was unemployed but from a realistic perspective, which newsroom did he belong to? How much would such newsroom have had to spend training him before he was ready for his first assignment? Would he even have been willing to unlearn the absurdities he had crammed into his head under the mistaken impression that they were actually knowledge?

Nobody can deny that, increasingly nowadays, university education is seen as an opportunity to get a certificate that can ease one’s way into the world of work. In the past, if one encountered a new (“big”) English word, they looked it up in the dictionary and thus increased their knowledge of the language. Sunday Standard’s comment board on Facebook shows that the occurrence of such word in a headline is opportunity to not consult a dictionary but rush to the comment board, make wisecracks that will get 2000 likes – and stay ignorant. That same reader will dismiss a 200-word article as “a book.” In the world of work (in official reports and meetings) one encounters new words on an almost daily basis and what attitude one brings is one they have developed over years. In that same world, people communicate in whole sentences, not Facebookese (which even University of Botswana lecturers report encountering in essay scripts), memes and social media emojis and have to read voluminous reports.

Generally, people are hired not because they have a university degree or have to make a living. They are hired because they add value to the organisation they work for. Unemployed graduates should be able to say that they want to replace ancestors because they received better education or education as good as that ancestors received. Ironically, ancestors are employed because employers believe they are better qualified and if it necessary at all to blame anyone, it is employers because they have final say in this matter. Employers invest huge sums of money in commercial and other ventures and want guarantee that those they employ will give them returns on their investment.

Unemployed graduates either overlook or choose to ignore that some of them do actually complain about the quality of education they get. In December 2017, Sunday Standard published an article about an engineering student at a fly-by-university asserting that he would certainly not be job-ready when he completed his diploma programme in a few months. He recounted how, on his first day of an industrial attachment programme at a marquee motor dealership in Gaborone, his supervisor asked him to disassemble a boiler. The supervisor was horrified to learn that the intern didn’t know how to do something that is taught in the first year. How many unemployed graduates have had similar experience but are now actively looking for jobs? The oddity of this situation is that while they are still at university, students complain about the quality of education they are receiving but want to place a high premium on certificates earned on the back of such education. Oddly, student representative councils have never agitated strongly and consistently enough for appropriate academic standards. As important a point to make here is that prior to the fly-by-night university, Botswana never had an issue with sub-standard university education.

Agitation by unemployed graduates for ancestors to make way for them has some novelty about it. In countries that have produced the most number of billionaires, the same countries where most apps (and emojis) are designed, one qualifies to be part of the national workforce on account of competence – not age. In one such country, the United States, the Senate is effectively a gerontocracy where the average age of a senator is 61.8 years, with the oldest senator aged 84. Indeed, age has been an issue in US electoral politics (in US public life generally) but the context was wholly different to the agitation made in Botswana.

“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” said Republican presidential candidate, Ronald Reagan, at the start of a televised debate with his Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” 

Granted this was a joke but Reagan was also making a profound point about youthfulness and the world of work. Being young means that you have a lot of vigour but it also means that you are inexperienced. A country needs both vigour and experience to function, something that no less an authority than the Botswana Institute of Development Policy Analysis (BIDPA) has also asserted. On the basis of her research, Tshepiso Gaetsewe, a BIDPA Associate Researcher, has recommended that in addition to youth empowerment, the government should “also target older potential entrepreneurs with accumulated experience to encourage them to go into self-employment, and to further promote employment creation, economic diversification and poverty reduction.”

Unemployed graduates are also part of a generation that is causing havoc in schools, homes, streets and social media. Unlike ancestors, one too many of them don’t have extensive home-training in the (still highly coveted) indigenous decorum that can make or unmake an organisation or profession. Some don’t even know the proper indigenous greeting forms and yet feel ready to work in places where customers expect to be greeted properly. No one has a right to abuse nurses but the nursing profession has been in the news for the odious personal conduct of some nurses. Clearly, an academically nurse who doesn’t return greetings from patients still doesn’t qualify to work at any medical facility.

Motaosane’s contribution wasn’t this general because he had to stay on-topic. To fill the inexperience and skill gap, the MP proposed that young people should receive requisite training in countries such as India where diamonds are cut.

RELATED STORIES

Read this week's paper