Nothing fascinates boys more than a machine, as a matter of fact, I think boys are half man half machine. Ask any parent how glorified a car is to a boy. I mean we could play games where one sounded like a Mitsubishi and the other one a Nissan; we would not let go off our cars (made of wires and bottle tops) even in our sleep. Sorry ladies, we were also were puzzled by your dedication to plaiting Ghanaian lines on some grassy hills. Like normal boys do, I could not wait to grow up, earn a degree, make money and finally buy a real car (in that, socially advocated for, order).
As nature would have it, the first two happened almost by themselves. What no one told me about was the gap between the degree and that real car – an amorphous ‘desire phase’ or ineffective demand. You see economics tell us that effective demand occurs at the intersection of willingness and ability to pay – you reckon the heart is rarely in a consultative mood with the pocket when it desires things. Point is, after my degree and in the desire phase, I enrolled into a driving school. Then, years later, my boyish love of cars and my engagement with graduates under The Bridge Africa- UReady Emploaybilty Program crystallized to produce one of the most important lessons that I believe every university should know. Yet it was so simple, and it came through as I reflected on my driving school experience.
That it was not about the car!
To make my case on what can be learned, I need to first state what is the gap in learning. The gap is that our universities, the country’s workforce preparation system seem unable to pass the skills necessary to function in the 21st-century workspace. I believe part of this gap relates to how our lecturers pass knowledge (although I have no intention of placing the entire graduate skill gap blame on academia’s doorstep, I sure intend to highlight part of their failure). So what can lecturers learn from sometimes dingy driving school that would make them better prepare our graduates for the job market?
1). Objective Definition
Who is a truly educated graduate? Is it one who has graduated having satisfied the hours per unit? I believe universities can learn better how to define the objective of being in a university. The most articulate part of my driving school experience was how clearly my objective was defined- the instructor said: “You are here to learn how to move a car safely from point A to B while obeying all the traffic rules of the land”. It is from this definition that every activity, exercise, and effort was framed. Similarly, a university must define the outcome of going through it – to quote Noam Chomsky, a truly educated person should be a graduate who can ‘objectively enquire, ask good questions; have the discipline to seek their answers and also prioritize on what is worth pursuing.’ This must be what we should produce on every graduation ceremony.
2). Signs on the Wall vs. on the Road
After objective – the lesson on road signs begun. It was natural for us to understand the language if we were ever expected to be guided by it. This was a question of memory, after all, we had our booklets though we looked at the road signs as if we have never walked by a roadside. But we did fine until the environment changed and I was no longer required to flip pages or point to a chart and shout ‘Give Way!, Men at Work! I was now supposed to not miss a sign while on the actual road driving (it was more complex that it sounds i.e. balance all those things with the legs, be steady on the steering, keep to my lane and main gosh!).
The university, like the signs on a chart we recited, is a controlled environment where the primary duty is to recall but life and work are the signs by the roadside. When we graduate, we have to not just know the sign, we have to see and obey them while driving, along busy lanes at night, day, misty, foggy or during dark nights. Unfortunately, our lecturers excel at signs on the wall – theories on rarely updated handouts which students start equating to excellence and capability at work. On the other hand, the driving school created an environment in which we soon realized that ‘To Know’ was necessary but NOT sufficient without the ‘To Do’ part. Our lecturers must ditch those handouts once we are good at reciting and push us to the deep end of doing – create an environment where to know does not become the goal and to be good at memory the dominant goal.
3). Same Skill different cars – transferability
My first three days on the road was with a Nissan saloon car. By the third day, I was getting comfortable with it when Gabriel (our instructor) introduced us to ‘the lorry’. Funny enough, the route was the same, but I have never been more nervous- I later realized that had the car not changed I was training to become ‘a driver of the saloon Nissan’ not a driver (of any car). Thankfully, by changing the training cars continually the sensitivity of my skill development to the type of car was disrupted before it formed. This is skill transferability at its best!
At UReady Africa we have noted that driving schools have remarkable skill transferability models, I mean you don’t hear drivers panicking that you have given them a different car from the ‘other one’. Unfortunately, this cannot be said to be true of many products of our institutions. A CEO once told me that most of our graduates never ‘leave school’ i.e. they never shake off the dependency notion wired during their academic life. After working on the ‘half-baked’ graduates issues I can safely speculate that when life presents a different model of working (like in my case a different car) and mostly a challenging one panic or immobility is almost always predictable in our graduates.
Our lecturers have the onerous task therefore of designing a learning experience that discourages dependency and incorporates discomfort – this is the middle name of the modern work environment, let our graduates learn it.
4). A good driver every morning
My last lesson came after completion and a couple of months driving. I realized that it does not matter how well I drove yesterday, I had to choose to be a good driver everyday if I truly want to move from ‘point A to B safely while obeying traffic rules’ every single time I was behind the wheel. University must equally speak to the character of the graduate we release. I was told plainly that if I ever let down my guard as a driver, I would die, maim or inconvenience myself and/or others. Our graduates must be taught the place values, character and mindset if they want to navigate lanes at work safely and profitably. At UReady Africa we are committed to deliver these employability skills in partnership with universities.
Patience –be slow when learning
I remember one of my course mates panicked as we entered Forest Road and confused the fuel peddle for the brakes one. Being a well functioning car, it executed the command with diligence and shot forward thankfully instructors have a different pair of controls and he handled it. In graduate skills and work experience, there is a sense of hurry and an almost forgetfulness or confusion of fuel for brake peddles. We ought to wire patience in career entry but more fundamentally mentorship must be part of graduate preparation – they can keep their hands on control peddles to safely guide learning.
Validity of Credentials
Lastly, every day I must ensure my driver’s license is valid. Driving with an invalid license is likened to never having driven in some jurisdictions. The concept of validity of a credential here serves to remind the higher education that a degree is a signal of possession of a competency but that competency must be valid as appertains to the time, place and context of usage in the market. Sure, driving schools are not responsible for your driving behavior but they qualify you for a driving license in the category you qualified for. Similarly, universities must only pride themselves in what their graduates can actually do in the job market, not the certificate they conferred to them.