Multi-skilling: Intellectual Synergy or Death Knell for Professional Growth?

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Recently, I had an intriguing and exciting dialogue with a fresh graduate from one of our well-known universities who claimed that he had always wanted to be a mechanical engineer and was not happy that he had graduated from an agricultural engineering programme. After several online exchanges, I convinced him that agricultural engineering could even be a more attractive and exciting career than mechanical engineering, given that our country is still predominantly an agricultural economy. I also convinced him that agricultural engineering has a lot of mechanical engineering content in addition to other branches of engineering and physical sciences. At the end of the conversation, he was convinced that he had taken the right academic programme at the university.

During my undergraduate studies, I had a friend who came to pursue a mechanical engineering degree, having completed an agricultural engineering diploma programme earlier. He graduated with a good mechanical engineering degree and reported back to his place of work in the government of Kenya. When he presented his papers for promotion, he was denied the progression as the bosses claimed that he had changed his career line. He felt frustrated for several years earning only the salary of a diploma holder despite having attained a degree. He eventually left government employment, going into the private sector.

The above two examples illustrate some typical challenges that we encounter in some career paths. I have deliberately used the example of agricultural engineering because that is also my background. It is an academic discipline that has attracted a lot of flak over the years. As an academic discipline, agricultural engineering is quite broad. It entails the application of all relevant science and engineering concepts in agriculture, horticulture and livestock production, processing and management. Additionally, agricultural engineers are expected to have a sound understanding of crops, animals, soils, climate, economics and elements of rural sociology to enable them work effectively with farmers. This relatively broad academic background answers to the diversity of problems that you can find in the realm of agricultural production, processing and distribution. Whereas some agricultural engineers have worked with large engineering consulting firms in the design of dams and related infrastructure for the purposes of irrigation, others find themselves working with rural farmers in soil and water conservation services. Still, others work as managers of large agricultural processing factories while others oversee the land preparation, planting, crop protection and transport activities in large agricultural plantations. Today, the county governments in Kenya are increasingly hiring agricultural engineers.

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