Career choices: Dilemmas facing East African varsity students

Friday April 22 2016

Media training at St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE

Media training at St Paul’s University in Limuru, Kenya. The career choices that young adults make are embedded in their perceptions of their dream job. PHOTO | JEFF ANGOTE 


The phenomenon of globalisation has led to increased competition and threat to the survival of work organisations. All types and levels of employment have been affected to different extents.

Many traditional jobs have been replaced by new ones or have been radically transformed. Increasingly flexible employment contracts and a greater heterogeneity of the workforce are important features in the current labour market.

The growing complexity of the world of work has been coupled by the massification of post-secondary education and training opportunities. There has been an expansion of provision at all levels of the educational system in the East African Community partner states’ universities resulting in greater numbers of students of all ages, institutional diversity, and academic heterogeneity.

When compared to some years ago, students today have a broader range of educational opportunities although they face a tougher, competitive and more complex labour market.

Citizens today have to learn to assess myriad information systems so as to map out their education, training and employment routes that fit one’s interests, skills, competencies, qualifications and evolving labour market opportunities. This implies further educational choices, which must be made in the light of this scenario and labour market demands.

In view of the continuous developments in employment and education, access to high quality career guidance is important for creating and maintaining a competitive knowledge-based economy and ensuring social inclusion.

Career development, for most people, is a lifelong process of engaging the work world through choosing among employment opportunities made available to them.

Each individual undertaking the process is influenced by many factors, including the context in which they live, their personal aptitudes, and educational attainment.

A major turning point in adolescents’ lives involves the career choice that they make while in high school. Frequently, it is viewed by family and community as a mere start to workplace readiness; however, this decision plays a major role in establishing youth in a career path that opens as well as closes opportunities.

Given the differences in the social and economic context of college-bound versus work-bound adolescents, it is important to explore the factors that influence young adults’ selection of specific careers.

Studies have shown the interrelated nature of the youth’s perceptions that highlight the importance family, school and community play in shaping young adults’ career choices. Research brings out the following thematic areas that influence career choices for young adults:

Family, school and social culture nexus

Young adults, through interaction with the context of family, school, and community, learn about and explore careers that ultimately lead to career choice.

The interdependence of family, school, and community culture plays a critical role in shaping the youth’s occupational choice.

The economic and social circumstances of the broader community colours and influences the youth’s perceptions of appropriate career choices. Youth in communities of more affluence appear to have more family and school support in career exploration, which results in consideration of a wider range of career options.

Parents, and other family members, provide valuable learning experiences through their own role models and supporting activities that assist in exploring career interests.

Work-bound youths’ parents frequently teach skills that provide youth with a broader understanding of their own aptitudes thus contributing to career choice.

“My dad works as a lawyer, and some of my relatives too. I may start off in his law firm, and, you know, I have learned a lot from him on how to be a great lawyer. That is why I am pursuing law.”

Socio-cultural context

College- and work-bound young adults in the EAC partner states are influenced by vastly different social and economic contextual factors in their pursuit of markedly different occupational paths while transitioning from school to work.

College-bound and work-bound youth exist side-by-side in high school, but face the transition to the workplace in different time frames and with different expectations for career opportunities available to them. College-bound youth have career trajectories that are future oriented, with the first step being college participation.

“College gives me a chance to test out what I want to do. I can always switch courses. It’s most important to graduate.”

Work-bound youth, high school and tertiary college, occupational goals are identified by a specific type of employment that drives their skill development and educational attainment.

“I have to know what I am going to do when I get out to choose an area for training. I know what I am good at, so I will choose welding.”

The transition for work-bound youth is more direct and dependent upon gaining employment that will quickly shift their roles from adolescent to adult, binding them to adult career expectations.

Dream job

The career choice that young adults make is embedded in their perceptions of the dream job and their career decision-making maturity. Occupational choice is not a mere matching process; rather, it is a choice made in a context of many influencing factors. The perception of the dream job acts as a filter for job appropriateness and influences the choice process.

“I think, like you have an idea of what the perfect job is in your head, exactly what you want to get up and go do every day.”

Initial career decision-making is a cultural, developmental task that adolescents are expected to have accomplished by the end of their high school year. Within surveyed high schools, a wide range of difference existed in career choice maturity.

In the most affluent schools, career decisions had been made, and students were preparing to enter college or advanced training. In the lower income schools, the lack of career decision-making was the norm.

The lack of family involvement in the career choice process appeared to be influencing these youth inability to make decisions. In these groups, youth perceived it was not their family’s role to assist with their decision-making process.

“We don’t talk about it at home. Besides, it’s up to school to help me figure this out.”

It appeared that both the youth and their families were taking a passive role in making a future career decision and implementing a plan of action to achieve it.

Inherent obstacles

Young adults recognise that barriers exist to implementing their future career choices and seek ways to overcome these obstacles. All of the youth voiced that the lack of financial resources to attend additional schooling or training was the major barrier.

For college-bound youth, the second most identified barriers were college acceptance and being capable of graduating. Work-bound youth identified the lack of employment opportunities as their second barrier to achieving employment goals.

The urbanisation pull

The pull towards urban areas of young adults from the rural area appears to be a function of its rural-ness, which offers limited employment opportunities.

Rural youth face the dilemma of wanting to remain close to family and friends while believing that employment in urban areas offer more opportunity and income. The majority of the youth captured in a particular study planned to leave the rural area to seek employment.

“I’d like to stay, but in this area the salary that is offered is not what a four-year degree deserves. Everyone wants to pay peanuts. So show me where the money is, and I will go there.”

Some work-bound youth planned to stay if they could find work in the area. Employment was the key to the decision to stay or go.

Do students get appropriate and adequate guidance on career choices?

Choosing an appropriate degree programme is a daunting task for university students and many are making a choice about an academic course before they are developmentally ready.

Studies indicate that many college students are in the midst of maturational and identity struggles; choosing an academic programme from a myriad of choices is a developmental task for which they are not prepared.

Nevertheless, choosing an academic course path is extremely important not only in terms of students’ time and finances, but also in terms of student satisfaction, success, and retention.

However, many academic advising offices in the universities in the EAC region tend to skip directly to the choice of programme and courses during the first contact with students at orientation. These offices are therefore not effective, because they assume students have already made life and career goals. According to research studies, the first question should be, “How do I want to live my life?”

Unfortunately, many students have not been able nor had the chance to explore the answer to this question before entering university. Academic advising programmes need to allow room for the exploration of life and career goals before the first semester of enrolment, such as before or during orientation. It is encouraged that advisers should help students explore their goals through well-tailored workshops.

Also contributing to this lack of exploration is the information presented in high school about career choices. The level of career education students receive in high school is minimal and questionable.

Interestingly, a study carried among freshers at Moi University in Kenya found that students professed to having had little career guidance in high school. Also impacting career guidance in high school is the ratio of students to guidance counsellor.

The average ratio of student to guidance counsellor in high schools is five hundred students to one counsellor in the EAC region. The counsellors therefore have neither the time nor resources to individually help students prepare to choose a career during their high school experience.

Incoming students should not be forced to make decisions about their educational and career goals as they have not been adequately prepared in high school to do so. For this reason, academic advising programs should consider including career exploration opportunities before students come to campus.

What happens when they get to the universities?

It is estimated that 20 to 50 per cent of students who enter university in Kenya are undecided on their career paths. An estimated 65 per cent of students from 22 universities in the region have indicated being dissatisfied by the programmes they are pursuing right up to the graduation year.

The statistics show that choosing an area of study has serious implications for the majority of students, in terms of job placement after graduation. Unfortunately, even the “decided” students are basing their decision not on factual research and self-reflection but other considerations.

According to a survey in more than 16 universities in the EAC region involving a sample of 800 students, when asked to elaborate on their career decision-making process, factors that played a role included a general interest in the subject; family and peer influence; and assumptions about the courses, potential job characteristics, and the strength of the faculty in their particular universities.

While these may be valid factors in degree choice, the study study ultimately implied that students are choosing a given programme based on influence and assumption rather than through an understanding of their own personal goals and values.

Are there many cases of students opting out of the courses they have been selected to do? The current statistics indicate that 56 per cent of the students desire to change courses they were admitted into. A further 36 per cent of those who report at the particular universities apply to change the courses they had been given.

Considering the impact of having students in programmes they are not comfortable with presents very worrying implications at the individual and national level with regard to human resource placement and productivity.

The choice of a given degree course significantly impacts the student’s experience, both positively and negatively; affecting retention, engagement, student learning, academic standing, setting of academic and career goals, and more. Here, personality congruence with the right degree course will have an impact on the success rate in terms of completion and performance levels.

Career tips for students

  • Refrain from pressuring youth into making quick choices or pursuing courses associated with high income professions. Not everyone should or can be a doctor or a lawyer.

  • Focus attention on pursuing courses of interest, even if the immediate relationship to the degree or career is not obvious.

  • Help students understand that piling on certain courses and not others will harm rather than help them in job interviews. Potential employers will want to know why they did not perform evenly in all courses.

  • Encourage participation in job shadowing — going to work with people to see what their jobs actually entail and asking people they meet how they got into their careers.

  • If they do enter university undecided, encourage them to follow a course of study that keeps their options open until they decide.

  • Refrain from giving advice based on the job market of 20 years ago. Today’s employers need a different kind of worker and favour different degrees. As soon as doubts about their current course surface, encourage them to reassess. The sooner they change directions, the more likely they will stay on course for a four-year graduation.

  • Urge them to take full advantage of campus advisory services to avoid floundering, shifting from one course of study to the next, and prolonging their dissatisfaction and their academic careers.

  • Help them understand that a concentration on certain courses is not a career. There are multiple paths to most careers, just as there are multiple careers that can be obtained from a single versatile programme. Encourage them to explore their options.

  • Help them prepare academically before arriving at university to avoid spending their high-priced time on remedial or review classes.

  • Understand that the student-to-counsellor ratio averages 500:1 in the EAC partner states at the high school level. Do not rely on high school counsellors alone to guide children through the exercise of choosing a career.

Open the door

Career guidance staff both at school level and university in the EAC region are being challenged to assume a more assertive role in providing programs to assist youth in career choice.

Understanding the key role that family and community play in the process requires counsellors to reach beyond traditional youth audiences.

Engaging parents in understanding the vital role they play in adolescents’ occupational choice will challenge universities, as it has schools.

Developing collaborative programs with innovative strategies that engage youth, parents, and community will require career masters to become effective in managing collaborative partnerships that can help change stakeholders perceptions of their role in adolescent’s career selection.

Putting in place programmes and strategies that assist parents, schools, universities and youth in exploring a wide range of occupations can open the door to emerging and non-traditional career choices.

Providing adolescents with learning opportunities in which they are challenged to make sense of situations that they will encounter in various types of employment can provide them with a greater understanding of career options.

Community-based learning that involves teens in solving real-world workplace problems directly connects them to the reality of various occupations.

Engaging parents, universities and other stakeholders in active support of career exploration and choice provides the context that assists adolescents in making successful transitions into adult workplace roles.

Prof Laban Peter Ayiro is the director of quality assurance at Moi University.