It is an open secret that in Nigeria, the harvest is so few but the labourers are plenty. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 33.3% or 23.2 million Nigerians out of the country’s 70 million working population are without work.

When drilled down to graduate unemployment, the figure is scarier. The NBS has not released any updated job figures this year, but the 2020 estimates pegged graduate unemployment at 25 million. Therefore, at this rate, one can conclude that only a few graduates have a chance at any gainful employment.

However, it is important to note that this is not a Nigerian problem only. In most emerging markets, graduate unemployment averages about 7.97%, according to a recent MSCI report.

Despite these gloomy pictures, it is still possible to come out of the university today, secure gainful employment, and grow your career.

Below are three things you must understand and do differently if you must join the lucky few.

1. Do not dodge internship

The difference between fresh graduates from elite homes who secure jobs quickly after graduation and those from poor homes who wait for an additional two to three years before securing a job is internship opportunities.

This is a global problem. A recent report in BusinessDay culled from the Harvard Business Review cites how fresh graduates in China are ditching their interests in traditional career roles to seek opportunities in tech due to the inability to secure internship opportunities.

Ideally, every undergraduate should intern and gain invaluable experience in the profession of interest.  However, most students, especially those from poor homes cannot afford it because someone has to support them with transportation and feeding at least, since there are hardly any paid student internship placements in Nigeria. Students in that category usually miss this important opportunity. It does not help that they also have to worry about the next session’s tuition and other expenses.

If you have missed the opportunity to intern during your undergraduate days, you must seek an internship opportunity after you graduate.

You should understand that as a fresh graduate, the odds are already stacked against you succeeding, simply because you have neither access to the system nor the understanding of its modus operandi.

Therefore, your first pre-occupation should be how to reduce those odds. To reduce the odds, your first line of attack is gaining experience, and gaining experience should start with an internship.

Think about any experience upon graduation as an expression of interest to be part of the economic system.

Think of it as an opportunity to prove yourself and to build your character. It hardly goes beyond those two. I can assure you that the first five years after leaving school is about proving that you can do the job and that you have the character to continue to do so profitably.

2. Experience over salary

It is the dream of most fresh graduates to land that dream job upon graduation. However, the reality is that few employers are willing to absorb greenhorns into their workforce. As a fresh graduate without any work experience, you are more or less a liability to any organisation that hires you. This is why many employers are reluctant to hire you even though you are smart and have graduated with good grades.

This problem is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is a global reality. Whether here in Nigeria or even in the developed West, studies show that young people under the age of 30, just leaving the university contend with the dilemma of scarce entry-level positions and employers’ demand for experienced,  skilled workers.

The best way to think about your degree certificate is as a financial derivative called Options. In Options Trading, you only acquire rights, but no obligations. Your degree certificate is only a right to the system, but to exercise the Call Option, you need to acquire the necessary resources. Work experience is at the heart of those required resources.

It is in your best interest to seek opportunities that will give you that experience as opposed to opportunities that will make you money in the short term and get you to pay bills.

You have to think long term and understand that there is a difference between a career and a job. Any work that earns you money is a job but if it is not something that you can do for a significant period of your life, then it is not a career. Prioritize experience over salaried jobs that will not lead to a career.

3. Get yourself a mentor

Whether as an intern or in your first official job, you need a mentor.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a mentor as an experienced person who advises and helps somebody with less experience over a period.

The definition of mentorship I found more interesting is the one I found on a Wikipedia article, which explains “mentorship as a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a  less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but they must have a certain area of expertise. It is a learning and development partnership between someone with vast experience and someone who wants to learn”.

If it was imperative for one to have a mentor in college or university, it is even more so while starting a career. You see, a mentor is someone who has been on a journey you are about to embark on. He has not only been on that journey, but he has also done an excellent job at it. By associating yourself with him and learning at his feet, you save yourself from costly, regrettable mistakes and the attendant grief.

Getting a mentor is also an acknowledgement of your limitations and need for improvement. It means you are humble and patient enough to learn the ropes.  Some people do very well in their academics and it gets into their heads so much that they think they do not need any help.

However, the corporate world is unlike school at all. It is a different monster, so you need someone who has tamed this monster and learn what you must do differently.

Jonah Nwokpoku is an author and a communications professional based in Lagos. His latest book: “First Generation: A Fresh Graduate’s Perfect Guide to Starting A Career in Emerging Market,” which was released on October 2 is a cleverly written companion for final year students, fresh graduates and those seeking to rise in their chosen professions.