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A significant number of young people face difficulties in finding a job due to the mismatch between their education/training and labour market requirements. 

The specific skills and attributes suggested as being essential components of employability are widely identified as communication skills, critical and analytical thinking, team work, problem- solving, self-management, business and customer awareness, taking initiative, leadership and managerial abilities, systems thinking, work ethic, etc.

Successful and appropriate graduate employability is a benefit for all stakeholders—graduates, employers, higher education institutions, governments and the economy at large. On the other hand, failure to equip graduates with these skills can have adverse consequences for employees, employers, organizations and the economy at large since it can pause challenges as regards unemployment, low wages, job satisfaction, the ability to find suitable labour and overall productivity and competitiveness of a given economy.

While it would be most appropriate for all stakeholders to join together to improve graduate employability there appears to be inordinate demand on higher education institutions (HEIs) to produce the graduates with the profile that industry needs without sharing responsibility for that goal. 

This exaggerated expectations of HEIs sometimes overlook the importance of commitment from other critical stakeholders like employers and students, resulting in their passive role which can have a detrimental effect on success. If left exclusively to HEIs the objectives will remain difficult to achieve.  

A shift of attitude is thus needed to bring about changes where important stakeholders assume a variety of roles in identifying employability skills, enhancing the mobility of graduates and university faculty, and facilitating the transitional phase for new graduates.

Profiling skills and competencies 

The wider discussion on graduate employability assumes that graduates must develop skills and attributes that respond to today’s fast changing work environment. 

Higher education institutions are usually left to define and deliver these skills and incorporate them into their progrmas. While the role of HEIs in preparing qualified graduates cannot be discounted, this role cannot be accomplished singlehandedly without bringing employers and others on board. However, most often, the role of employers in developing such skills appears to be a missing element or a neglected issue.

It is important to note that many of the “generic skills” needed could differ from one geographic or industrial context to another. While the identification of specific employment-related skills or competencies has been pursued in many countries such as Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States the reality is different in contexts like Africa where this exercise has been non-existent, perhaps with the exception of South Africa.

In the absence of frameworks, the definition of employability skills and competencies cannot be left to HEIs. It must rather be developed through the active participation of employers who should assume the role of clearly articulating what they expect from recent graduates. A continuous updating of the skills needed by graduates must also be done through the ongoing involvement of employers who are more aware of the changing demands in the work environment.

Enhancing student internship and externship

In addition to the involvement of employers in curriculum design, their assistance in creating opportunities for experiential learning is key. Student internships appear to be a common activity in universities across the world to expose students to the world of work. This practice demands the active involvement of employers in assigning student interns to appropriate workplaces, providing them with support, and closely monitoring their performance.

Experiential learning programs succeed not only when employers grant permission for student placements, but more importantly when they are involved in monitoring student progress and providing constructive feedback. However, in many contexts this level of employer participation remains passive.

Where it does happen, the success of externship programs in which university staff stay at industrial placements to acquire practical experience requires a similar level of willingness, assistance, follow up and feedback.

Facilitating the transitional phase of employment

The role of industry and business during the initial phases of graduate employment is also a critical component in enhancing the employability skills of young employees. 

Traditionally, employers assumed the role of grooming new graduates to become productive members of a given work force. This role is gradually eroding as employers wish to have graduates come “ready-made” with the needed skills or with a few years of work experience. Both are unrealistic and can disadvantage the majority of young graduates who cannot fulfill these expectations or requirements.

Employer readiness to assume some responsibility during the early phase of the work life of young graduates not only helps new graduates to develop new skills but also to develop confidence that would help them respond to the various demands of their jobs. This requires that employers devote time and resources to the task.

Research in this area indicates that employers that are most successful at developing the employability skills of young graduates are those that create additional opportunities to learn—a environment less friendly to young employees can derail learning capacity, self-confidence, and output.

Towards a strengthened role for employers

Since work readiness involves the various intellectual, social, and personal dimensions that evolve both during the university years and in the work place, the cultivation of employability skills cannot be left exclusively to universities. 

It is true that universities have responsibility for curriculum reform that will better prepare graduates for the increasingly complex demands of the workplace. But their success depends on other stakeholders being equally committed. Benefits to employers will be determined not only by how much universities adapt, but also by their own readiness, capacity and effort to contribute. 

Employers cannot complain about young graduates being “half-baked” if they themselves remain outside of the education and training process. It is important to move beyond lamenting the limited skills of graduates and assume a proactive role in influencing and contributing to the output of universities. 

While universities have a major part in this change, the active involvement of governments is critical in many environments to set policy directions, galvanize multi-stakeholder engagements and offer direct and indirect incentives to companies that get involved in these initiatives.


Wondwosen Tamrat is an associate professor and founding president of St. Mary's University, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.



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