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Changing times

Changing times



by Firew Kefyalew (Ass. Professor )

I wanted to write about this issue after I read few comments on Facebook by young graduates seeking help in finding a job. They sounded very desperate and some appeared to be clueless. One can read between the lines of these comments that these young people actually had believed that with a degree a job was easy to come by. Well, in the not-so-distant past, that has been the case. The yesteryears were predictable in the sense that when one got a ticket to a college/university, and given successful completion of a study and regardless of the market demands of a particular field that one has studied, some kind of job was certainly to be found. This is not the case now in present-day Ethiopia, and there are a number of reasons for that.

The first reason to ‘blame’ is imbalance in demand and supply. In the old days, the number of university graduates in a given year was always way less than what the country’s labor market demanded. There were very few universities and colleges to shape young minds and naturally these institutions could only provide education to few. Affecting the supply side further, enrollment into a college or university didn’t mean a smooth ride to graduation: a significant number used to be dismissed for not meeting the required minimum grade point average.  For students in higher learning institutions, Christmas has never been synonymous with holiday celebrations; it was a time filled with suspense and apprehension as it meant survival or else the dashing of hopes.  Come to present-day Ethiopia where we boast over 30 public and private universities and colleges that see tens of thousands graduating every year.  There is no doubt that we need even more universities and colleges for such a big country with a bulging population that is approximating a 100 million if and only if we have jobs for these people. The drum of job creation by the youth themselves is being beaten day in day out but the question remains if these people have been equipped to create their own jobs. What is clear is that many are still looking for jobs the old way only to swim in the murky waters of hopelessness against the tidal waves of desperation. Very few get a chance for their first job interview but then don’t know how to go about it, while many don’t even make it to the shortlist. Why?

The second reason is with regard to the narrowing divide between expectations and performance.  Some refer to this as quality of education, or in other words the extent to which graduates demonstrate a desired level of knowledge and sophistication. In the ‘old’ days, one could with certainty attest that those who graduated from higher learning institutions had what it takes to be considered as a graduate.  To begin with, these young people were the cream of the cream that managed to pass through the tight meshes of the secondary school leaving certificate examination. Then they had to wrestle teeth and claw while in college/university to survive and excel, which had a single lane to it called hard work.  Hard work was the way. If one had to write a paper, then there was no other way other than drafting it, re-writing it, editing it, and finally submitting it. Obviously, there was learning in all these. Those who came out of such a system were hardened and informed enough to meet the expectations of the outside world. The divide between expectations and performance was not that wide. They were perceived as high achievers. The belief in these people was such that even when they failed to deliver up to expectations, others rationalized on their behalf. There was a conviction that the education quality was passable although the line of excellence has always been high.

I have had the privilege of working as a senior officer for most of my career, which means an opportunity to interact with young graduates who keenly wanted to get a job. In the last eight years alone I have reviewed job applications of thousands and interviewed hundreds.  Many had even approached me at a personal level seeking a job outright because they have now graduated, or advice on how to get one.  My personal observation is that while qualifications (and GPAs) have shown tremendous change towards the positive, what the holders of these qualifications could do by way demonstrating their competence has been wanting.  While screening, I would first look at an application if it were in line with the vacancy announcement.  In most cases, this is about having a covering letter/expression of interest and an up-to-date curriculum vitae.

Many application letters/expressions of interest or resumes fall short of what the job requires, as they are limited to just fulfilling a requirement in a process instead of serving as bridges of communication linking the applicant and the recruiter. They end up disappointing the recruiter, for they provide very scanty or misplaced information about the applicant. For instance, it is a common habit by many fresh graduates, especially those from outside major cities, to photocopy a template of an application letter by leaving open the date of application and name of the organization they are applying to. When applying, they fill the two pieces of information with a pen (in most cases with a very poor handwriting) and submit it.  In most cases, the templates they use are full of grammatical, spelling, and capitalization omissions. Moreover, it is not uncommon to find covering letters that were submitted to an organization re-sent to another organization without changing the name of the first addressee!   All this is in addition to a poorly written resume that says very little about the applicant. The recruiter has no choice but to throw these applications into the dustbin for they neither attract nor inform.

One may assume that the shoddy nature of these applications is due to sheer carelessness/recklessness. For me, it mainly relates to the quality of education the youth are made to pass through – an education system that didn’t arm them with keen eyes to see details, an educational system that pays very little attention to critical thinking, an educational system that celebrates quantity over quality, an educational system that shuns hard work but encourages short-cuts. Of course, lack of proper orientation to these youth on how to look for a job is an additional culprit. This is not to depict a picture of youth that is detached, vulnerable and passive. The youth, too, have a responsibility at least in terms of making a conscious effort to undo the damage of their ‘education’ by taking themselves through the rigorous exercise of defining one’s future through introspection. In my view, the youth need to understand that while it is commendable to have a qualification, at the same time one needs to question if the qualification actually translates into knowledge that can be contextualized and put into good use.

In the job interview sessions that I have had the privilege of attending as interviewer, a common question that I casually throw at an interviewee is: tell me what you can do. The answer by many revolves around a lengthy description of the qualification they have, the GPA they graduated with, and in some cases an attempt to impress me by their command of English. What a graduate job seeker needs to do is to come up with a roadmap of where one wants to be in 10 years, even if it doesn’t play out. That will provide a direction as to which jobs to apply for and why. Furthermore, it is advisable to identify categories of jobs you want (up to three) and whether the ground is fertile enough for you to follow your passion.  Generally, employers are likely to favorably treat a job application if the applicant has a career plan in place, that the application meets a plan that one has drawn.

Many aspire to have the ideal job of their dreams. Well, while it is no sin to dream, one has to ask oneself if the dream is realistic. Is it really possible to reach the top of the ladder just like that without stepping on the ascending line of rungs? Preparing oneself for a foundational role is critical here. This may mean starting from the bottom as compared to what one is aspiring, exposing oneself for stress, and strenuous working conditions.

In conclusion, the youth need to be realistic in that having a degree doesn’t translate into a job outright, hence need to take deep breath to take concrete steps towards preparing oneself to tackle challenges.  The good news is there is so much information around that the youth can use to their benefit. Let us go!