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REALITY CHECK

Finding right career path after leaving high school

Favourite subjects and hobbies are good indicators of what to pursue

In Summary

• The formal economy is not growing quickly enough to absorb all the job seekers

• If parents cannot afford the preferred course, students should take realistic option

Students check books at the Zetech University library
Students check books at the Zetech University library
Image: COURTESY

More than 830,000 high school students have completed their final exams and are now pondering their next step in life. Many want to pursue further education to improve their prospects of getting employment, but the many choices out there can overwhelm high school leavers and their parents or guardians.

The days when a Form 4 leaver could get a job are long gone. Andrew Mwaiseghe, who completed high school in 1968, says they had job offers even before they did the final examination. "Recruiters would move around schools to book future employees for their companies," he recalls. High school leavers were in demand because there were very few university graduates back then. Those who went up to Form 6 would be absorbed into the corporate sector as management trainees. 

In today’s world, a high school leaver is regarded as unskilled labour. The only jobs available to those without tertiary education are low-paying, casual jobs. Well-paying, permanent jobs require competence in a professional field. This is the main reason why families sacrifice to send their young ones to college or university.

CONFLICT OVER CAREERS

Career choices often split families. The differences between the parents’ wishes and the choice of the aspiring student can create bitter feelings that may take many years to resolve. This calls for honest discussion and flexibility on both sides.

Nelson Jomba, now a retiree, recalls the conflict he had with his daughter regarding her choice of degree. "She wanted to do catering but I felt the course was not marketable," he says. "I made a lot of effort, trying to get her to see things my way, but in the end, I agreed to her choice. Young people are very stubborn these days!”

As Jomba notes, the main factor behind the choice of careers is the ability to quickly get a job upon graduation. No parent wishes to invest in a course that will not help their children get employment. Courses in medicine, law, architecture, finance, marketing and media are very popular because of the belief that graduates in those specialisations will not wait for long to get jobs. ICT-related courses are also in demand, as is teaching, hospitality, community development, nursing, hairdressing and craft courses. 

Now a nurse in her early 50s, Gloria Mutua wanted to become a health worker soon after high school. Back then, the only training centres for health workers were government institutions, with very limited opportunities for new students. "My parents told me to try another course but I was determined to do nursing," Gloria says. After a long wait, Gloria decided to take an administrative course to help her get a job and start earning her own money. She eventually got employed as an office administrator in Nairobi’s Industrial Area, but her spirit was still itching for the nursing profession.

Gloria’s big break came over 10 years later after getting a Green Card to settle in the United States. She joined a nursing school, graduated and is now practising the profession over there. Her story proves that even though one's career aspirations may be delayed by circumstances, it is never too late to pursue your dreams.

NO GUARANTEED JOBS

Students who pursue higher education still face challenges because the formal economy is not growing quickly enough to absorb all job seekers. The government is encouraging job seekers to start businesses, but critics say not everybody has the skills or aptitude for entrepreneurship. As the possibilities of getting jobs are diminishing, lots of graduates are taking up casual jobs just to survive. The jobs are mostly in the service industry as waiters, receptionists, mobile money kiosk attendants, boda boda riders, hairdressers and matatu crews.

This worrying development raises questions on whether university degrees have any value. In a previous article, university lecturer Amos Marube said education is important because it teaches critical thinking. “Education helps you understand where you come from,” Marube said. "The knowledge you get in class will be useful to you in future, though you may feel your studies don’t match your current circumstances."

While he agreed that the government should do more to create jobs, Marube advised the youth to get aggressive in exploiting available opportunities, such as those on the Internet. The skills required in online jobs prove the relevance of higher education. "For example, with communication skills, many young people are earning a living from blogs and YouTube," he says. “There are graduates making money by offering tutorials online.”

HANDLING CAREER CHOICES

Despite their little experience, teenagers are expected to make crucial decisions that will affect the rest of their lives. Parental involvement is, therefore, crucial in a young person's career choices, but the final decision should be left to the student.

Numerous studies show that parents or guardians who have positive relationships with their teenagers have a much bigger influence when it comes to career choices. Experts say allowing the youth to make career choices, while offering the necessary advice, is a significant step in enabling them to grow into adults capable of independent decisions. The young person’s favourite subjects and hobbies are good indicators of what to pursue after high school.

On the other hand, students should always bear in mind the financial circumstances of their families. For example, training to become a medical doctor or pilot is extremely expensive, unless one is enrolled in a government or corporate-sponsored education programme. If the family cannot afford the preferred course, it is advisable for the student to take an affordable alternative and then pursue the more expensive training later, when finances improve.

With a career already chosen, the next step is to await placement through the government placement service or look for a college. All training institutions in Kenya must be registered with the Ministry of Education and recognised by professional bodies. Information on a particular training institution's registration details can be obtained from the ministry's website or the website of the relevant professional body.

Similar due diligence should be done by those wanting to enrol in foreign universities and training institutions. There’s no point spending time and money in an unregistered institution because any academic or technical qualifications so obtained will not be recognised by employers.