Employers need graduates to be taught vital soft skills

With concerns increasing over the inability of the labour market in most African countries to absorb fresh graduates, education systems should concentrate on delivering quality education with marketable skills and not just on expanding enrolment figures.

With national education policies and priorities geared towards enrolment increases, commensurate efforts are not being made to expand facilities. Enrolment challenges might thus easily eclipse others that face most educational institutions and African graduates.

For the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal Four – the provision of an inclusive and quality education for all – systems must improve upon the quality of education and ensure that graduates attain measurable learning outcomes, including the acquisition of skills required by the labour market.

Also, a paradigm shift has been noted, from increasing pupils’ basic skills in the three Rs (reading, writing and arithmetic) at primary school, to expanding access to secondary and higher education, in order to ensure the skills attainment required by the labour market (Fisher and Frey, 2015).

As Azevedo, Apfelhaler and Hurst (2012) argued, universities are under intense pressure to produce employable graduates with a broader set of both hard and soft skills. However, studies have indicated that university curricula are rarely reviewed or changed to incorporate current labour market requirements (Hurlimann, March and Robins, 2013; Sidebotham, Walters, Chipperfield and Gamble, 2017).

Issue of skills growth neglected

Generally, the issue of skills growth in most developing countries has been neglected and does not appear in national blueprints or poverty reduction strategies (Palmer, 2007; Powell, 2012; Osmani, Weerakkody, Hindi, Kapoor, Al-Esmail and Eldabi, 2016).

Universities are important institutions in that they teach graduates skills to meet economic demands (Al-Harthi, 2011). The link between a university and labour market can be explained by a university’s core function, which is teaching, in order to: transmit and advance knowledge; generate new knowledge and train skilled manpower for society (Allen and DeWeert, 2007; Tymon, 2013).

However, Ponge (2013) argues that the high unemployment rate among African graduates is attributed to a widening gap between university curricula and industry requirements.

This discrepancy requires an examination of university graduate attributes and skills to address the employability gap, but there is a paucity of scholarly studies on the topic – particularly in Tanzania – from an employer’s perspective. Crowley, Jones, Cominetti and Gulliford (2013) also argue that employer views regarding employability skills are not properly understood. This study, therefore, aims to identify graduate skills required by Tanzanian employers.

Students acquiring broader skills

In a highly competitive labour market, emphasis is often placed on skills that university students acquire during their studies, beyond cognitive knowledge and academic proficiency (Clokie and Fourie, 2016; Mason, Williams and Cranmer, 2006). There is therefore growing concern about the need to assess the impact of students acquiring broader skills.

It is unfortunate that employers complain about inadequate performance by new graduates. Although curriculum content may include the skills and knowledge that students need to attain, teaching and learning processes – and university methods – do not empower them to obtain these skills, argues M Nyirenda in a 2012 article, "The need for effective strategies to curb challenges in the country's education sector", in the Guardian newspaper. There is much theoretical learning, but little practice.

Corroborating this, Nganga (2014) observes that at least 50% of the graduates produced by East African universities are “half baked” for the job market. In addition, findings by the Inter-University Council for East Africa reveal that, in Uganda, at least 63% of graduates were found to lack marketable skills, followed by Tanzania (61%), Burundi (55%), Rwanda (52%) and Kenya (51%).

Such findings raise serious questions about the standards and skills offered by universities to students, with growing incompatibility between theoretical learning and employer skill requirements.

Unemployment in Tanzania

According to the UN’s 2017 Human Development Index report, the rate of unemployment in Tanzania is 12.9%. Recent studies indicate that the country’s labour market – offering growing opportunity in the oil, gas and telecommunication sectors for graduates with technical expertise – has a skills gap, with private employers recruiting abroad (Changarawe, 2014; Ngonyani, 2013; Mutagwaba and Kyetema, 2017).

Others (Mwasalwiba, Dahles and Wakkee, 2012) argue that persistent and high graduate unemployment has adverse long-term consequences for young people and society at large, including higher risk of future unemployment, prolonged periods of job instability and depressed income growth. This may result in a deterioration of skills and negative perceptions by prospective employers of graduates who have been unemployed for prolonged periods.

It is estimated that, each year in Tanzania, 700,000 graduates enter the labour market, but only 40,000 (5.7%) find employment in the formal sector. Also, Ondraczek (2013) argues that economic trends and reforms play a significant part in shaping employment in the country, citing the economic decline in Tanzania in the early '80s.

In the same vein, Mkude, Cooksey and Levey (2003) argue that economic liberalisation, the privatisation of parastatals and the growth of private economies led to downsizing and government recruitment being frozen, resulting in graduate unemployment.

Graduates lack necessary skills

Data from Tanzanian employers reveals a skills shortage among university graduates, with most employers indicating that expertise in verbal and written communication is an important factor in employability. Apart from academic qualifications, employers also require applicants to have analytical, investigative, entrepreneurial, managerial, teamwork, time management and computer skills.

Tomlinson (2008) states that student credentials are key to future employability, as they provide an advantage in the labour market, but Samuel et al (2004) discovered low levels of computer proficiency among students. It can therefore be argued that, to compete in the labour market, a graduate needs to have the required skills, in addition to an academic qualification.

Some scholars have warned against the tendency by universities to concentrate on classroom teaching and neglect other important skills that can be acquired through practical training (Heike et al, 2003; Rothwell, Herbert and Rothwell, 2008). Heike et al (2003) point out that leadership and management skills, including creative problem-solving and teamwork, are difficult to attain outside a job environment.

Also, Artess et al (2014) argue that, during the recruitment stage, employers emphasise the value of practical, work-related experience, rather than candidates’ academic certificates.

Regular curriculum review

This study recommends that programmes be reviewed and adjusted periodically to respond to social, political, economic and technological change at regional, national and global levels. New systems are also needed to facilitate student mobility among universities, in the light of differences in programmes offered at various institutions. An active, full-fledged system is also needed to address credit accumulation and transfers, to help universities become more flexible, both within the country and the region.

A quality university education should be determined by inputs, processes and outputs. In the case of this study, inputs include secondary school graduates. However, increasing enrolments lead to stretched capacity and compromise the provision of quality education. Therefore, teaching-learning facilities must be improved and curricula developed to produce graduates with integrated skills and competencies enabling them to be flexible, independent, creative and innovative.

Simon Ngalomba is based at the department of educational foundations, management and lifelong learning at the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This is an edited version of a paper presented at the Policy Research for Development’s (REPOA) 23rd Annual Research Workshop, held in Dar es Salaam from 4 to 5 April.