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Universities and employability – Preparing for the demands of work

Around the world the number of graduates is growing, yet the ‘skills mismatch’ is also rising. A degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job, and fingers are being pointed at universities for failing to better prepare students for the real world and the expectations of employers.

Universities are often seen as the problem, adopting an ‘Ivory Tower’ approach to learning.

Yet at the same time “there is a considerable number of impressive and geographically diverse examples of effective university-community programmes to improve youth employability”, said Amy Newcomb Rowe, programme manager at the Talloires Network, which has been focusing on youth unemployment as part of its Youth Economic Participation Initiative, YEPI.

The topic will be a focus of the 2014 Talloires Network Leaders Conference being held in South Africa from 2-4 December.

The challenge is to find the employability initiatives in developing and emerging economies that could be expanded or influence other institutions, she said. One of the goals of YEPI is to “test and improve” a number of university-led initiatives that can help accelerate graduates’ transition to the workforce.

“It was very obvious after meeting with people in the world of education that formal education seldom speaks to the world of employment,” said Reeta Roy, CEO of MasterCard Foundation, one of the funders of the YEPI programme.

“Economies are trying to grow and employers are out there looking [to recruit], but there is a plethora of young people who just don’t fit with what the growth sectors need.” Even sought-after graduates, such as engineers, need additional skills to satisfy employers.

‘Social engineering’

“Before, working for the government was the aim of many of our graduates, but it is no more their dream,” said Elodie Hanff, deputy director of Technopark – the business incubator at the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering – 2iE for short.

“Today the main ambition of our students is to work for big, multinational companies in Africa. These companies are looking for engineering training but they are also looking for those with leadership spirit, able to manage a team.”

2iE in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – one of the YEPI partner institutions – attracts students from two dozen countries in Africa for its specialist engineering degrees. Its unusual programme of social entrepreneurship, compulsory for all its students, is being extended to graduates from other institutions in West Africa, thanks to YEPI funding.

An engineering masters graduate would be expected to manage teams for engineering, energy or water projects in the field, Hanff noted.

“The problem is that it is very costly to have laboratories and to provide training that includes practical work, so most universities in West Africa provide only the theory and this is not the profile that companies are looking for,” she said.

2iE provides training and links with the world of work through internships, fieldwork and other practical opportunities.

“We talk to companies about their changing needs. Africa is moving very fast in its development and we need to train the right engineers so that they are ready for the world of work,” said Hanff. “Companies are looking for local workers who understand the local culture, they want to avoid hiring expatriates,” she notes.

All students do some entrepreneurship training whether they intend to set up companies or not. “It is very important for this opportunity to be open to everyone,” Hanff believes.

“Maybe now they face the pressure of graduating but later they may want to create businesses and then it will be very difficult for them. They will not be able to get the free training and support we provide.”

Malaysia

Another YEPI partner institution, the National University of Malaysia or UKM, in Bangi near Kuala Lumpur, is a large, comprehensive university. It requires all first-year students from every discipline to take a compulsory entrepreneurship course with optional courses for second and third year undergraduates.

“We want them to see that youth entrepreneurship is achievable – you don’t have to be a mature student to start a business, ” said Associate Professor Dr Shamshubaridah Ramlee, deputy director of CESMED, the university’s Centre for Entrepreneurship and SME Development, which also conducts the optional entrepreneurship courses right through to the business incubation stage.

Those in the optional later stages can enter a junior start-up programme “where they sharpen their business idea and do the business plan”, she continued. “The start-up lab helps them to connect with SME [small and medium enterprise] agencies” in the country.

Originally the project was conceived to reduce graduate unemployment and to provide a link between the university and business.

But there have been wider benefits, according to Professor Fariza Mhd Sham, CESMED’s director, who also notes that Malaysian students – like many others in Asia – can be “culturally reticent, soft spoken and introverted, and do not like to speak their mind”.

From interviews with lecturers who teach the students their main disciplines, CESMED found “these students are different, they are more creative”, said Norngainy Mohd Tawil. They develop “soft skills as well as an entrepreneurial mind so that they will always see obstacles as an opportunity”.

University environment

Even if entrepreneurship learning does not lead directly to employment or start-ups, it can make students more resilient.

YEPI partner institution the University of Zimbabwe, for example, which runs the PaNhari Programme providing job skills and entrepreneurship training to students at three universities – it is currently being expanded to cover more universities – has created a means of measuring student resilience or the ability to bounce back from adversity or failure.

“They are finding their [entrepreneurship] curriculum shows students [have] a greater rate of resilience compared to others in Zimbabwe,” according to Carol Carrier of the University of Minnesota, who is part of the university’s team assessing the YEPI programme.

YEPI provides demonstration grants to eight institutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America, to ascertain what works, what is scalable and what is replicable or adaptable to other countries and situations.

“We are going to follow these institutions to see what kinds of jobs these students get,” she said.

“There is clear acknowledgement [within YEPI] that not everyone is going to pursue an entrepreneurship route. But even without that there are skills, particularly soft skills, to be learned,” she said.

William Reese, CEO of the International Youth Foundation, believes entrepreneurship training should be extended to all young people, including in Africa and the Middle East, which have a significant ‘youth bulge’.

“Every young person who seeks to get ahead, shape their own future and contribute to their community, needs to be entrepreneurial,” he said. “It helps young people experience and experiment – being entrepreneurial is a mindset.”

The skills necessary to open a successful business are closely related to those needed to compete in the jobs market, Reese said.

“Thinking outside the box, creatively solving problems, working in teams, delivering a project or assignment – these are often called life or employability skills needed by employers everywhere.”

He added: “But it takes teachers, facilitators, mentors, coaches – you can’t just plug and play.”

The university environment is considered a safe one for students to take entrepreneurial risks and try out new ideas for learning.

“Universities have a tremendous role to play in creating solutions and opportunities, both through knowledge and technical skills. Universities are also living laboratories for coming up with solutions and testing ideas,” said MasterCard Foundation’s Roy.

“Universities... are a human enterprise, inhabited with lots of young people looking to acquire skills. That gives us insight in how curricula and learning experiences are designed and new knowledge created.

“The attributes may be different for a young person living in the Philippines, or Indonesia or Rwanda, but there is a lot that can be learned and applied. It’s about understanding approaches that are working and why; and is there a sufficient level of commonality to suggest there is something here that works,” said Roy.

Network

Back in Ouagadougou Clavin Nsunfo, a 2iE student from Cameroon, is developing his green start-up that tackles the ecological scourge of plastic bags – some 16,000 tonnes of plastic waste are produced every year in Ouagadougou, little of it recycled.

His business plan involves using the plastic waste, combined with other raw materials, to produce an economical thermal roof coating – an alternative to metal sheeting – which can reduce temperatures in dwellings in a country where the temperature often reaches an unbearable 45 degrees centigrade.

“Africa needs products and services designed for the population instead of copy-pasting what is done in the West,” said Hanff. That is why ideas need to come from students themselves. But they need assistance and finance.

“2iE is also a network. We are working with many others – research groups, universities, enterprises. Our job is to build relationships, be an interface between researchers and enterprises.

“We help our entrepreneur-engineers to move forward internationally because not everything is available here locally, not all the skills and the equipment. In some cases we have found partners abroad, in France for example,” said Hanff.

COMMENT

It's not just universities. If governments and businesses are not going to invest in more jobs then you can have all the skilled education in the world and still not get a job; it's a numbers game and all three have responsibilities here (governments, universities and students).

Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page
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