Monday, 8 August 2022

What universities should do to better prepare fresh gads for the labor force, according to the private sector

What would private sector firms like to see universities doing more of, to better equip fresh grads to enter the labor force? Last month, we looked into the skills that companies from a range of sectors look for in fresh graduates and how well they think local universities prepare them for the labor force. Today, we look at what these companies want to see higher education institutions doing to make their graduates more prepared for the modern labor force and better equipped to address labor needs.

Their answers fell under three broad categories: Work that can be done within the university itself — including reorienting curricula towards real-work skills acquisition — making work experience at companies outside the university a mandatory part of degree programs, and amending some aspects of Egypt’s higher education framework, sector representatives from law firms, startups, and companies in a range of industries told us.

For starters, university curricula should focus more on real-world skills application, says PepsiCo HR Senior Director Naniece Fahmy. This could include understanding how emerging industries or departments can be used to improve customer experience. When it comes to entering progressive industries or looking at modern ways of doing business, students need to understand how ideas translate into practical application, she notes. “When we talk about e-commerce, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, or consumer centricity, what does it mean?” At the moment, these things aren’t generally covered in textbooks or in the classroom, she adds.

This real-world application includes a better understanding of the business environment to put their knowledge to practical use: Rather than memorizing laws and applying them in a rigid way, irrespective of circumstance, law students need to be taught that their job as lawyers is to facilitate their clients’ businesses transactions, says Firas El Samad, managing partner at Zulficar and Partners. “Law is not about knowledge alone, but about applying the rules in a fair and just way to best serve the interest of your clients and protect them.”

It could mean setting projects for engineering students that tackle real-world problems: Engineering student projects and theses should be tailored towards existing gaps and needs in different companies and markets, says Yousef ElSammaa, chief strategy officer at Mother Being. This would offer students real exposure and enable them to test the viability of their projects at an early stage — and it would be more motivating than the projects they’re usually assigned, which tend not to have an immediate practical application, he adds.

Or pushing students to work on extracurricular activities that help them develop skills like financial literacy: University clubs and activities can help students develop skills including problem solving, planning, structuring, analysis, and budgeting, says Kamal El Soueni, co-founder and CEO of Rabbit Mobility. Fresh grads with this kind of experience are streaks ahead of their peers when it comes to understanding things like the financial aspects of business, he adds.

Overall, there needs to be more emphasis on cultivating soft skills, such as leadership and presentation skills, and help their students think about how organizations work, says Fahmy. Also critical is encouraging students to think ahead and use critical thinking to anticipate developments and how to prepare for them, says HSBC Egypt’s Head of HR Moustafa Raouf. “It’s a big shift away from just studying what you’re told to study. Preparation involves asking yourself, ‘how can I think differently?’, ‘what will happen if I do this?’, or ‘what am I expected to do in this situation?’,” Raouf adds.

Some also believe universities should include mandatory work experience at private sector companies as a graduation requirement: “This would help them master vital skills, including project management or how to manage pressure in the workplace,” says Wafik Beshara, VP of HR at CEMEX Egypt. “If construction or mechanical engineers worked with us for six months before graduating, they’d finish their degree programs with a basic knowledge of how corporations function.” Sakneen co-founder and CTO Hussein El Kheshen agrees: “I feel no one should graduate with less than a year of work experience,” he adds.

This is already in play overseas: Many European universities apply this model, notes Beshara. Mandatory work experience, or co-op, courses are also reasonably common in parts of the US, Canada and the UK, notes El Kheshen.

Here, more partnerships between private sector firms and universities would help get this off the ground, Fahmy and Raouf say. They would increase the options for real-time learning — through meaningful internships, for example — and offer more chances for universities and companies to align their expectations when it comes to the skills students need in the labor market, they note.

There’s also consensus that there should be a review of some aspects of Egypt’s higher education framework. This could mean giving the public university Tansik system a shake-up, suggests Shalakany Senior Partner Moataz El Mahdy. Not all the many students who study law in Egypt’s public university system do so through choice; instead, their study destination is determined by their grades in high school, according to the Tansik system. This puts enormous strain on public universities, and means students going through the public system often don’t get the individual attention they need. It should be reviewed, El Mahdy argues. “Law should be a top faculty, and not one that accepts such a large number of students,” he adds.

This change should also include looking at new assessment models: “I don’t want university grading to depend on an exam and that’s it. Universities need to find more effective ways to assess and differentiate between students,” Fahmy notes.

More sector-specific institutions could also give graduates a 360° perspective of particular industries: While some Egyptian universities — like Helwan — have strong hotel and tourism faculties, hospitality as a sector is much broader than this, and students entering this field should be comprehensively educated on it, argues Tarek Nour, TBS General Manager. “If you join the hotel or tourism section of a university, you might be taught certain things, like how to make beds or cook a chicken. But students need to be taught about everything related to the supply chain — including customer service, food manufacturing, procurement, warehousing, hygiene, and accounting systems,” Nour says.

Given Egypt’s reliance on the hospitality sector, this kind of training is essential, Nour argues. “I’d love to be the Dean of the first Egyptian university fully dedicated to food manufacturing and restaurant management,” he says. “Currently, we don’t have any university in Egypt specifically focused on this important field, which represents a big part of the economy.”

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