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No vacancies: Depression and death dog jobless degree holders

 A man holds a placard in search of work on a Nairobi street. [Boniface Okendo, Standard]

Eric Bulinda, a 2018 graduate of  Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, embodies the frustration of unemployed university graduates. Unable to secure a job, Bulinda earns a living prospecting for gold in River Isiukhu in Kakamega County. 

“I was hired by boards of management of schools on three occasions and I taught for a while before calling it quits. The boards couldn’t pay my salary, yet I have a family to take care of,” he says. But unlike Bulinda, most graduates are either not willing, or cannot find something to fall back on, and depression sets in.

The recent death of 28-year-old mechanical engineer, Robert Gituhu, underscores the hopelessness wrought by the twin problems of runaway unemployment and a high cost of living in Kenya. 

Gituhu succumbed to injuries sustained after he set himself ablaze last week in Mombasa. In a video posted on social media, the young graduate was frustrated by the high cost of living.  “If maize flour prices are not reduced, I better die”, Gituhu said in the video. 

Gituhu’s self-immolation is reminiscent of the December 17, 2010, incident in which Mohamed Bouazizi, a young Tunisian who sold vegetables atop a wheelbarrow despite possessing a university degree, set himself ablaze to protest police harassment and a high cost of living. His eventual death on January 4, 2011, sparked what was later known as the Arab Spring. 

Michael Kibet, 26, a graduate of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology also died by his own hand in June this year after searching but failing to secure a job. Kibet graduated with a first-class honours degree in ICT and Telecommunication.

In February this year, Dr Muoki Fred Wambua from Machakos County took his life after unsuccessfully struggling to secure a job. His death brought the number of unemployed medics who took their lives out of frustration to seven in a span of two years. An estimated 4,000 doctors are unemployed despite public hospitals not having enough doctors to meet the World Bank’s doctor-patient ratio of 1:1000 according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentist Board (KMPDB).

Kenya's unemployment rate: Case of when numbers lie?

It gets worse with engineering courses. Estimates put unemployed engineering graduates at a staggering 97 per cent of those who have qualified. The Engineers Board of Kenya says it has 15,000 registered engineers, 30,000 unregistered engineers, and only 2,000 professional engineers against a demand of 20000, ostensibly because Kenya doesn’t have enough industries to accommodate engineers.

With the younger demographic aged 35 years and below forming 80 per cent of Kenya’s 50 million plus population, educated youth bear much of the pain. Recent data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) shows that the number of jobless Kenyans grew to 2.97 million in the last quarter of 2022.

Millions of job-hunting graduates feel betrayed by the government’s inability to create enough jobs. Rampant corruption within the government and political patronage have resulted in certain communities hogging jobs in government. Victims say it is painful considering the heavy economic burden of financing university education for families from humble backgrounds.

 Eric Bulinda prospecting for gold in River Isiukhu, Kakamega. [Benjamin Sakwa, Standard]

The Senate Committee on National Cohesion, Equal Opportunities, and Regional Integration recently called out the skewed recruitment exercise of Revenue Service Assistants at the Kenya Revenue Authority that favoured only two ethnic communities. Out of the 1,061 positions advertised, Kalenjin and the Kikuyu ethnic communities took 788 slots, representing 57 percent of the total. That violated the 33.3 percent threshold set by the National Cohesion Integration Act 2008 for any Kenyan community to hold jobs in a public institution.

While opportunities for employment remain at an all-time low, universities and colleges continue to pump at least 50,000 graduates into the job market every year.  A 2018 study by the European Journal of Social Sciences on the causes of unemployment among university graduates (case study Garissa) concludes that “Causes of unemployment including corruption, nepotism, and favouritism should be discouraged and proper mechanisms put in place. Knee-jerk reactions won’t help in solving a problem of such magnitude. If a lasting solution is not found on these issues, the problem of unemployment in Kenya will never be won.”

The study goes on to say, “The government and stakeholders are supposed to put practical solutions on the table. Institutions of higher learning should work out flexible and more marketable courses so that graduates are absorbed into the dynamic market”.

Corruption in Kenya is endemic, and even those with a thirst for education find themselves victims. The Eldoret saga in which students were conned out of about Sh1 billion for nonexistent scholarships to Finland is a case in point.

When US President Barack Obama paid a visit to Kenya in 2015, he pointed out that 250,000 jobs are lost every year due to corruption. In 2021, former president Uhuru Kenyatta shocked the nation when he said the government lost Sh2 billion daily to corruption.  

Content creation provides an avenue for youth to make a decent living. However, recent taxation measures contained in the Finance Act 2023 that impose a 15 per cent value-added tax on their earnings discourage the youth at a time when they should be encouraged to become job creators, not seekers.

Psychologists argue that the problem of youth unemployment has all the hallmarks of a ticking time bomb and should be expeditiously addressed. 

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