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Internships aren’t a magic wand for our jobless youth

By XN Iraki | Jan 28th 2020 | 4 min read
By XN Iraki | January 28th 2020

Internship is new vocabulary for the older generation that got jobs even before graduating from school.

To the younger generation, it’s an all-too-familiar word. It was not always that way.

Corporations and public sector firms came calling to schools as late as in the 1980s, looking for employees.

Unbelievably, I got a job offer at Mumias Sugar Company when I was in Form Two. I, however, forfeited it for a friend who had already left school.

Those who never joined the private sector found plenty of jobs in institutions such as the police service. 

By the time I was in Form Four, many of my classmates had left school for jobs. 

The police and even the military used to recruit primary school graduates. I guarantee you I am not as old as you think!

One Kenyan who graduated in the mid-1970s told me he got three job offers in one day.

Today, jobs are hard to come by. Students used to ask me to get them a job.

Today, they request for an internship. What happened? Where did all the jobs go?

The Kenyan public loves blaming the government for the lack of jobs. But the blame is shared. Jobs are created when there is demand for goods and services. When we demand more cars, more people are employed to make them.

When the demand for electricity goes up, we employ men and women to build new power lines or dams. When we talk more, we buy new phones and someone has to make them.

The slow growth in employment can be seen from the demand side. We are not demanding Kenyan products and services. Think of the jobs created because of the demand for M-Pesa services.

Think of the jobs created because we all need to eat. Why should there be no demand for our goods and services when the population has reached almost 50 million?

Low demand

Demand goes with income. Because most people have no jobs and lack money, there is low demand for goods and services and unemployment.

This shows how circular the economy is. Those with a reliable income are too few to create an impact. That is why in developed countries, the poor are given government aid in terms of subsidised housing and food to try and break the vicious cycle.

Kenyans with some income often prefer to buy non-Kenyan goods, further dampening the demand for local goods.

Such products are considered superior and a sign of sophistication, just like foreign names. Luckily, services are hard to import. Your barber, salonist or teacher is likely to be Kenyan.

Few police officers, if any, are foreigners. On the supply side, we rarely study the market; we assume the market will take whatever skills we have.

For example, the key takeaway from 2020 Davos World Economic Forum is that data analysts and scientists are in very high demand. Yet our love for mathematics and related subjects is cold.

The demand for jobs far outstrips supply for one simple reason: it’s easier to create jobseekers than potential employers. How long does procreation take?

Internships try to bridge this gap but do not solve the real problem. The assumption that we lack jobs because of a lack of experience is flawed.

We got jobs in the past without internships! If the market needs your skills, it shall not wait for an internship.

Furthermore, most jobs do not require you to solve differential equations.

Internships are supposed to be part of university courses to give students a feel of the workplace, to bridge theory in class with the reality of the workplace. They are not a substitute for full-time jobs. They are a stop-gap measure. 

They are better than nothing and give policymakers breathing space. But though a source of work experience, they can also be a source of cheap labour. What do labour laws say about interns?

The popularity of internships shows the economy has not grown fast enough to create jobs for the unemployed, particularly the youth. Where do we go from here?

The bigger question is how to create jobs. We can start by improving the business environment. We should treat entrepreneurs as kings, not bloodsuckers.

They take risks to create jobs for us. Yet we make life hard for them. Noted how trucks and matatus, which create jobs, are stopped by police and not private cars?

From registering a business to filing tax returns, running a business should be easy and fun. What of basic infrastructure from roads to water, security and ensuring property rights are adhered to? When will more of our budget shift to creating an enabling environment instead of going to wages and salaries?

We also must do our part. In good faith, we create jobseekers but ask someone else or entities to create jobs for them. What of population control?

Job specialisation

And we hate working, which is what jobs are all about. We must learn from East Asia whose focus on science and technology made them master job creators through manufacturing.

They add quality to ensure their products are demanded all over the world. That demand translates to jobs at home.

Americans have mastered services, from consulting to movies. Switzerland produces precision instruments, while South Africa produces wine. What of Kenya? 

But these industries are run by men and women with certain skills, which demand a re-examination of our curriculum. They focus on productivity, doing more with less.

What about us? Creating jobs is not that hard. What product or service can you sell to the world or locally and create jobs as a result? It’s that simple. We need jobs, not internships.

-The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  

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