Assessing Secondary School Graduates Employability Skills in Malawi | Case Study of Graduates Living within Lilongwe City.

6. 2. 2021

Malawi has experienced an increase in youth unemployment and poverty levels despite the introduction of community secondary education. Several studies attribute it to a myriad of factors ranging from socio-economic to a weak secondary curriculum. The curriculum encompasses theoretical academic knowledge compared to practical skills that can skill up the youth. The study aimed at investigating if secondary education produces learners with quality and relevant skills for employability skills. Qualitative and quantitative research methods and used interviews with technical and vocational students subsample in Lilongwe district to test the study’s hypotheses and analyze data were used. The study reveals that the current secondary education curriculum does not provide graduates with employability skills because more hours are allocated to theoretical subjects. There are no industrial visits in secondary education. It may be concluded that secondary education does not effectively develop quality and relevance skills for employability skills in learners. 


Malawi employs a three-level formal education system that consists of primary education, secondary education, and post-secondary education. Under the Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology, the formal educational system oversees formal education, an 8-4-4 system. The education system in Malawi comprises Standard 1 to Standard 8, Form 1 to Form 4, and four years of tertiary education. Students need to pass the national examinations to move to the secondary level of education. After four years of study in Secondary School, students sit for the final Secondary level examination, which is an equivalent of General Secondary Education (GSCE). Successful and competitive completion of secondary education is a precondition for accessing any tertiary education due to limited tertiary education institutions. Post-secondary education includes University Colleges, Teacher Training Colleges, and Technical and Vocational Training Schools.

Socio-economic and industrial development is dependent on the education sector as an instrument to grow the nation by empowering the youth. Therefore, the Education sector aims to provide knowledge, skills, and competencies to Malawians to reduce poverty levels in the nation. Relevant education is a societal transformer in the developing world. The National Education Sector Plan 2017 suggests that political, economic, social, and national development is dependent on relevant education so that communities experience transformed lives.

Literature Review

The Reason For Vocationalized Secondary Education

Approximately 73 percent of Malawians are youth below the age of 30. This youthful population affects the economy. With such a population, the education sector needs to pay serious attention to equip such a block of the population with skills that can benefit the nation’s economy. Many Secondary School graduates are churned out of Secondary School every year without a corresponding ready labor market to absorb them. The unemployment rate in Malawi hovers around 20% in general and is relatively higher among the youth. The youths represent a productive labor force and critical stakeholders and resources in nation-building. Suppose nothing is done to reduce the unemployment rate; Malawi will face the risk of having a generation of youths unable to get a job. The youths’ inability to secure gainful employment often leads to inadequacy, making them vulnerable to social ills and conflicts. The costs of these maladies to society and the economy are enormous.

Education plays a critical role in equipping youths for employment. Enhancing youth employability in the globalization age is of paramount importance. Weligamage, S. S. (2009) observes that “the current changing business environment emphasizes the importance of education for employability, focusing on developing not only skills but also practical experience.” Training students with the practical aspect of work is a new need because the practice enhances employability. The relationship between education and employment depends on the extent to which educational attributes are congruent with the labor market and how education is adaptable to the economy’s emerging dynamics (Sanusi, J. O. (2002). In the labor market, employers are much concerned with graduate employability, which refers to graduates’ work readiness regarding the possession of appropriate skills that will positively influence the company’s goals. Ikeoji & Agwubike (2006), Lauglo et al., Meyer (2009), and Akram (2012) are unanimous in concluding that vocationalization of education should have its focus to develop in the learners vocational and entrepreneurial skills. Vocationalized education focuses on providing orientation to employable knowledge and abilities that enable the youth to participate in high-yielding work and adjust to rapidly changing labor markets and economies. Rowe & Karsten (2007) considers graduate employability, work-readiness, to condense a range of competencies, qualities, and knowledge considered by industry and needed by graduates to secure and retain a job. They further argue that work-related education is a crucial strategy for promoting employability skills in learners.

Key Components of Vocationalized Secondary Education

Vocationalized Secondary Education (VSE) is an essential tool to impart necessary skills to students to become economically self-reliant. Rowe & Karsten (2007) states that work-related education is a range of experiential learning models and activities. These include project-based work, cooperative education, work-based learning, service-learning, internships, and practicum. To possess employability skills is to possess skills, personal attributes, and understanding that allow learners to be successful in their workplaces for their benefit, the workforce, the community, and the economy. Learners secure jobs competently if they possess employability skills. According to Smith et al. (2014) and Nabi (2015), employability is a set of skills grouped under:

  • Generic or fundamental skills comprising teamwork, organizational and self-management, planning, and communication;
  • Specific discipline: comprising skills and knowledge relevant to a discipline like accounting, law, fashion design, among others; and

Therefore, vocationalization of education or work-integrated learning has its objective to develop employability skills in its learners. These employability skills can be summarized to include:

  • Integration of theory and practice;
  • Commencement-readiness (confidence to start a job in the discipline);
  • Lifelong learning;
  • Collaboration;
  • Informed decision-making; and
  • Professional practice and standards

Delivering Work-Integrated Learning

One critical challenge confronting education is articulating and producing graduates that can meet the labor market expectations. Ogu, E. N. (2010) proposes that educational systems must design their curricula to suit the market demands without losing sight of encouraging human development. A constant working relationship between schools and employers improves students’ employability skills enhanced by students’ understanding of work realities, placement of staff, and adapting to new work approaches. Education institutions need to package and highlight their delivery attitudes technical, job-seeking, occupational, and core skills for students to quickly adapt to employability skills.

Strategies to increase students’ employability skills include extensive hands-on experimental work, design projects, presentations, and group work. While others include industrial attachment and visits, organizing career seminars, and promoting relevant employability activities. Such strategies highlight pertinent issues to the effective delivery of employability-skills development learning (also known as vocationalized education).

Curriculum Content

Curriculum content is crucial for the effective vocationalization of secondary education. The curriculum for VSE needs to be relevant to the needs of society in general and the nation at large. The curriculum is a solution to socio-economic challenges that may arise in society. When the education sector divorces itself from contemporary problems and issues, it fails to meet its responsibility to students as citizens because the future has its roots in the present. The youths represent future society; therefore, the education sector that is ignorant of contemporary life challenges denies essential experiences to students for building a better nation. Current social problems call for a renewal of problems-focused or solution-based study in the core curriculum at all levels. The Education sector has a special mission to equip the young generation with the skills and ideas of building a better society, not just to preserve the status quo. Secondary schools, therefore, are responsible for providing skills education to the youths through work experience.

Secondary schools need to provide a diverse range of courses to accommodate the more diverse study interests and students’ capabilities in their curriculum procedures to become more comprehensive. Such courses must be both academic and more vocational. The vocationalization of the curriculum needs to cater to students’ various talents and interests, thereby making it relevant to the needs of the youth, the nation’s aspirations, and developmental needs. Students who follow the vocational and technical route must undergo a designated attachment period to have hands-on experience. Vocational education should be offered through curricula designed by stakeholders with relevant professional boards.


Some least developed countries maintained the imperial curriculum due to political, economic, and educational pressures, believing that it would help reduce poverty and youth unemployment (Lauglo and Maclean 2005). This belief may stem from independence movements when the industrial revolution was associated with the developed world’s industrial art and crafts curriculum. Third-world countries were consequently influenced by the former colonial powers and donor agencies not to ‘reinvent the wheel’ (Williams 2009, p. 238). Current developments in those countries show similar trends where the curriculum is modeled on western paradigms. In Malawi, vocational education emphasizes craft and skills development. The curriculum has primarily remained the same despite undertaking several national policies and curriculum reforms for learning (National Research Council of Malawi 2002; Nyirenda 2005). The vocational education curriculum has maintained its industrial arts UK origins for five decades. It, therefore, remains colonial and restricted to skills training with little consideration of the Malawian context and prevailing social and economic conditions.

A shift from a colonial-based curriculum to a broad-based vocational education integrating local context requires a concentrated effort drawn from across the social divide, with the teachers’ role in such efforts being central to the design and development process of a new learning area. Technical teachers have therefore developed experiences and beliefs in their assumptions of such a curriculum. Engaging with teachers may help understand their implicit beliefs and theories surrounding their teaching practices and how it impacts curriculum reforms. A lack of understanding and mechanisms for deconstructing such beliefs may result in teachers implementing the ‘old tricks’ leading to the same old subject being delivered only with a new name. Ministry of Education and Culture (1973) notes that the existing curriculum was dysfunctional in terms of relevance and responsiveness to the requirements of secondary school graduates’ lives in a rural economy.

Competence of Teachers

The idea that the competence of vocational teachers is paramount. A Competence Model to meet the current needs in a profession is proposed in the Chart below. The competency measure model describes the knowledge, skills, and abilities. Before that, it represents competency development rather than tools for teaching for examination.

Effective Employability skills

Competency Model proposed by Matilda Matabwa: 2021

The first level in the Competency Model requires the teacher’s ability to integrate theory and practice in classroom activities. (Diep & Hartmann, 2016). VSE teachers must design teaching and learning objectives (Ball et al., 2008), considering vocational learner background. Teachers also need to use different teaching practices and approaches to attain the teaching objectives.

Professional Competency as the second level: teachers need to master the contents of knowledge with the latest information required by students (Grollmann, 2008). Mastering the knowledge and skills related to the current labor market needs. Failure to impart results in graduates who cannot perform in the world of work (Oluwasola, 2014).

The personal competency level relates to self-esteem, ethics, and personal goals as the personal traits that might enhance teachers’ competency for effective job performance (Yusof, Roddin, & Awang, 2015). Teachers need to keep themselves on new relevant theories and technologies to use in classrooms, especially in the new environmentally friendly technologies (Roberts, Dooley, Harlin, & Murphrey, 2006).

The final level is impartation competency, which means passing on, transmit, or bestow knowledge that brings out the much-needed skill in students. Teachers must share new wisdom, skills, and knowledge for economic gains, imparting confidence, motivation, coaching, and information to get the best results from students. Facilitating career progression and assessing students’ current knowledge and abilities is part of the impartation competency that teachers need to develop.

Connections to Labour Markets

Education provides opportunities to learners to secure employment and pursue a profession. It provides entry to the labor market. Education also provides personal development and the opportunity to pursue an interest. However, for most people, employment is a key reason they expend time, effort, and money, particularly on post-secondary education or college and university. Governments must regard vocational education as an efficient means to improve the youth labor market situation. The success of VSE programs in terms of labor market outcomes depends on how well they respond to the needs of labor markets. VSE programs need to incentivize all actors: schools, companies, organizations, and students, to participate and collaborate in VSE. The success of VSE at improving the youth labor market situation depends on the strength of VSE-related social institutions, i.e., how well these actors coordinate and collaborate.

The role of vocational education in national development cannot be overemphasized – it is one of the most prolific elements in the world of education. Vocational education prepares learners for the world of work by equipping them with skills and competencies needed for economic competitiveness. VSE assumes a degree of responsibility for the personal development of its learners and their effective participation in society. A well-designed VSE program has a specific capacity to contribute to the sustainable development of any nation. VSE learners need to be linked to prospective employers while still in their institutions to increase their chances for employability. Linking learners to the labor market will produce skilled workers who can meet the market needs with knowledge, practical, social skills, thinking skills, and positive attitudes. These linkages provide creativity and the ability to act independently and responsibly in the labor market.

Employment Assessment

Various literature identifies many types of frameworks and tools appropriate for assessing employability skills. Some of these frameworks include Socio-Technical E-learning Employability System of Measurement (STELEM), Self-perceived Employability (SPE) scale, Workability Index (WAI) or the single-item Work Ability Score (WAS), standardized competence assessment procedure, Extra and Co-curricular Activities (ECCAs assessment), Competency Assessment Tool (CAT), Work-Integrated Learning (WIL).


Tentana & Abdillah (2019) conducted a student employability study focusing on the relationship between achievement and self-concept with student reliability. A quantitative study, employing a questionnaire administered to 85 students selected using random cluster sampling, was done. Likert Scale Model was used to collect data on employability and self-concept aspects. Analysis of the data was conducted using multiple regression analysis to establish the relationship. Another study by Sermsuk, Triwichitkhun & Wongwanich (2014) employed a questionnaire using a 5-point rating scale to assess business owners'/managers’ perceptions of the degree of importance of various skills required at work. Measures of central tendency were used for analyses, namely mean, frequencies, and standard deviation. T-test statistical analysis was also employed. Therefore, it is concluded that perception surveys can be employed to assess the employability of secondary school graduates. Analysis of the data will include the calculation of central tendency measures and statistical tests.

In this paper, the key question investigated was: what employability skills or competencies are acquired through the formal Secondary Education in Malawi?”. A questionnaire adapted from ASTEE study used a quantitative approach. Data was collected using a questionnaire and administered to secondary school graduates.

Data Analyses

A total of 49 secondary school graduates within Lilongwe City participated in the survey. A response rate of about 48% was obtained from questionnaires developed using Google Forms and administered online. 55% of the respondents were females. The proportions by age group were as summarized in the figure below:

Figure A: Respondents by Age Group

Distribution by Age

Students of 35 years and below comprised the majority of the respondents.

As many as 85% of the respondents affirmed that many graduates from secondary school are not formally employed. As many as 50% of the respondents consider lack of job-ready skills as the main factor followed by a general decline in available jobs (40.8%). Skills mismatch was thought to account for 7.2% of youth unemployment.

Table 1 below presents the frequency of employable skills obtained from the survey and the level of importance of these skills as perceived by employers (obtained from a study by Sermsuk (2014). On average, fundamental skills are considered moderately high and high by about 89% of employers. In comparison, about 77.9% of our respondents considered having these skills.

Frequency of Employability Skills of Secondary School Graduates

Employability skill


Freq. (%)

Importance of these skills in the eyes of employers

Low (%)

Med. (%)

High (%)

Fundamental Skills

Ability to communicate






Manage information






Use numbers






Think & solve problems






Average score






Personal Management Skills

Demonstrate positive attitudes and behavior






Be responsible






Be adaptable






Learn continuously






Average score






Teamwork skills

Work with others






Participate in projects or tasks






Average score







As many as 95% of employers considered personal management and teamwork skills moderately high and high in importance. Yet, only about 76.5% had personal management skills, and 60.2% had team working skills, respectively. These findings support youth unemployment due to a more significant extent of lack of adequate job-ready skills. Skills mismatch (estimated at 7.8%) could mainly be due to rapidly changing technology. The technology on which the youth are trained quickly becomes obsolete when they leave school to get their first job.


The study shows that the proportion of secondary school graduates but pursuing tertiary education that demonstrated skills highly valued by employers was lower than the level of youth employment. This could point to the confirmation that youth unemployment is more a factor of not being job-ready at the time of graduation. Since most youth graduate from formal education at the end of their secondary school, policymakers must consider improving secondary education to make it more job-relevant.

This paper explored the employability skills of secondary school graduates because of the growing population of youth who leave education at this level. It contributes to a discussion on the need for a policy review to ensure the youth at this level graduate with employment and or entrepreneurship skills.

Author:  Matilda Tumalike Matabwa


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