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Amid job losses, loyalty wanes as priorities change for most workers

By Peter Theuri | Oct 24th 2021 | 5 min read
By Peter Theuri | October 24th 2021

Factory Manual Workers standing beside the conveyor belt stacking the freshly baked cookies for packaging. [File, Standard]

The Covid-19 pandemic cost lives and livelihoods and to many, loss of interest in their daily jobs.

A changing working landscape and waning feeling of job security in the last one and half years has also seen more people venture into unfamiliar jobs they would perhaps not have touched with a foot-long pole before the pandemic.

And as companies downsized, loyal and hardworking employees were sent packing, much to their chagrin. But accompanying the disenchantment was a key lesson - loyalty should be to learning and improving self and not to the employer.

There were yet other lessons learnt whose net effect was a mass exodus from jobs. American news outlet CNBC reported that in August 2021, 4.3 million Americans quit their jobs. While some people have left the workforce entirely, job security and better pay are top concerns for others.

The quits rate, measured against total employment, CNBC said, rose to a high of 2.9 per cent in August, according to America’s Labour Department’s Job Openings and Labour Turnover Survey.

“We were all able to take a step back in the last year and spend more time doing other things and question the value of what we’re doing at work,” said Anthony Klotz, a management professor at Texas A&M University.

“A number of people have made the decision, ‘I need to make a change.’”

It has been called “The Great Resignation,” and it has left companies seeking replacements from a sea of people who choose not to go back to formal employment. The gig economy is one of the beneficiaries of the situation.

CNBC reported that over half of the US workers surveyed said they plan to look for a new job in the coming year, according to a job seeker survey by Bankrate’s.

“Some 56 per cent of respondents said adjustable working hours and remote work are a priority,” said CNBC.

About 892,000 workers in the foodservice and accommodation industries left their jobs, with 721,000 retail workers departing along with 534,000 in health care and social assistance.

“As job openings and hires fell in August, the quits rate hit a new high, surging along with the rise in Covid cases and likely growing concerns about working in the continuing pandemic,” said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

Kenya was also hit hard by the pandemic. In the recently released Economic Survey, 737,500 workers lost jobs in the private and public sectors.

The informal sector similarly shed over 543,000 jobs with overall employment sitting at 14.5 million as of December 2020. Self-employed and unpaid family workers in the modern sector fell from 162,700 in 2019 to 156,100 in 2020.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) data shows private-sector jobs fell 10 per cent from two million in 2019 to 1.8 million in 2020 - the lowest employment numbers recorded in the sector in over half a decade.

This resulted in a three per cent reduction in the overall share of the private sector employment from 70 per cent in 2019 to 67.7 per cent in 2020.

It was women who suffered the brunt of job losses, with overall wage employment among women falling by 10.3 per cent compared to four per cent among men.

Living examples

When it was all going well, Dennis Naibei was a site agent with Vista Windows, a manufacturer and supplier of plastics. He was young in the job, with the enthusiasm of a rookie aiming for the stars, dreamt of better days ahead.

Then Covid-19 came, in July 2020, the civil engineering graduate left the firm and sought refuge in unfamiliar fields.

“The construction industry was affected massively. There were few ongoing projects after Covid-19 started spreading like a wildfire, which meant there was no work for me. I had to leave the company.”

For nearly three months, he was job hunting. He landed an unconventional job, having come from a promising position, as a casual labourer in a construction firm.

“For two weeks, I worked in a mjengo. I was making Sh600 per day. At that point, all I was thinking about was food, nothing more. I was staying at a friend’s house,” he says.

That changed his perception of many things for good. “I realised that it is safer to have my own business. The pandemic in my opinion affected the self-employed less,” he says.

He is now looking for capital to start his own business. That he had to settle as a civil engineer trainee on a road project in Homa Bay County after a short stint working as a construction worker. It also taught him about the uncertainty of jobs, seasons, and life.

“I am working with more focus. Nothing is guaranteed. Today you have it, tomorrow you don’t. Food clothing and shelter is all I need,” he says. “I had to downgrade to an intern. That was what was available for me, and you take what is available in such instances.”

Caroline Kariuki was lucky to have saved some Sh100,000 by the time she was sent packing in a mass layoff by a stationery factory in Kasarani.

She opened a household items’ shop that has been thriving. Her only regret is that she had not considered going into self-employment earlier. “Had I known, I would have made sure I start a business while still employed,” she says.

“There is more security and freedom.” Another shot at employment for her looks like an impossibility.

Like the smaller companies, some of the industry behemoths also cut workforce even as they tried to keep operating at anything above half capacity.

At least 14 of the 20 most valuable firms listed at the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) laid-off workers, according to an analysis of the annual reports by the Financial Standard.

And while some increased their workforce, many trimmed it, with a net reduction of 1,905 persons.

Paul Kang’ethe, unaffected by the layoffs, still had lessons to learn. “I learnt that it is good to be multiskilled so that if one job is lost then you have three or four more options,” he says.

“It is good to invest in agribusiness. Agriculture offered a haven for many that lost jobs to Covid-19,” he says, citing instances of people who tried their hand in agriculture and stuck there.

He learnt to save for a rainy day. With those informal jobs rattled and aware they could lose jobs any time, it is likely many will languish in unemployment if they are laid off.

Takers of formal jobs will probably take the jobs with their eyes looking around for other opportunities.

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