Overeducated and unemployed: A nation of hustlers disenfranchised by the corporate world

In the four years since leaving school, Jackson Koech has gone from proud graduate to defeated youth. From celebrating his degree to nodding at those who say, "Serikali itupatie kazi".

Once, Koech would only apply for opportunities which fell within the scope of the business course he had studied. It did not take long for him to lower his standards, and then lower them again, before unfastening his tie and throwing it away.

"Everyone says you have to tarmac after you leave school," he tells The Nairobian, "but I did not expect to be on the road for this long."

He tried everything: "I have shared my CV in all the places I can work. I've sent hundreds of emails. I've applied on almost every platform. I even sent my CV to uncles, hoping to land a job through the connections people say you need to have. At some point, I accepted that there was nothing for me in the formal sector."

Today, Koech has a small business online. He sells boxers, vests and socks. On a good day, he can make up to Sh10,000. He no longer remembers where his certificate is.

Koech belongs to a growing cross-section of the country's population. Well-read. Articulate. Competent. But for one reason or another, they are stuck at home.

His peers have put up posts. Others have brandished posters on busy highways, hoping to catch the eye of a Good Samaritan. Still more have accepted the 'hustler' moniker, and are waiting for the opportunities President William Ruto promised will be made available to them.

A week ago, the story of Diana Chepkemoi ignited the ire of Kenyans when photos of her abuse at the hands of a Saudi employer surfaced online. Diana was one of the few who made it out of the Gulf alive.

Yet, on the very day she landed on home soil, a large contingent of hopeful girls was flying in the opposite direction, heading towards the jaw of the very beast Diana had escaped from.

In the furore that followed the photos of Diana's abuse going viral, Foreign Affairs Principal Secretary, Kamau Macharia, pointed out that the government can only do so much when these girls and their guardians ignore warnings about Gulf countries.

"We have told Kenyans repeatedly to stop sending this category of workers to Saudi," he said through a statement on Twitter. "You've chosen not to listen."

How, Kenyans asked him, did he expect these women to make a living if their own economy has failed them?

How could he not see the situation for the indictment it was on our own governments?

Young people are desperate. The economy is in the pits. For years now, the piece of paper that once guaranteed them a seat at the table has become useless. As Koech points out, everyone has a degree. Some have two. They are all hustling.

And yet the situation on the other side of the divide is not that much rosier.

Cecily Kubai, an insurance agent, has been lucky. She has been employed since she left school in 2018. But in that time, neither her salary nor her job description has budged an inch.

"It doesn't feel like there's growth," she laments. "I've been doing the same thing for years. Whenever the conversation on promotion arises, someone else ends up getting it. We have had three departmental heads in three years, but the junior staff have remained junior."

While it is clear to her that she should seek other challenges, Cecily is also aware that the situation out there is not rosy. She has a bird in hand, at least.

"I have been applying for other jobs. I send at least five applications every week. I've gone as far as the final interview in some. But the result is always the same."

There is, of course, a third group. The ones who have figured out how to circumvent the system. The content creators, the influencers and the 'online writers'.

Yet, not everyone can wake up every day and share their life with strangers on social media. Not everyone can mine cryptocurrency, or trade in stocks, or start an online venture that takes advantage of the internet boon.

So, what happened to the jobs?

To begin with, there is a staggering number of graduates coming out of universities and colleges every year.

More than 50,000 fresh-faced young people are churned out by the higher education system annually year. According to Clyde Mutsoso, an economist and financial advisor, the mismatch between graduates and industry needs was always going to be a problem.

"There is a mismatch between what the market needs and the skills schools are producing," he explains.

"There is a lot of copy and paste, so many people doing the same courses; courses which have been assumed to have high employability, like business and accounting. But the opportunities available are fewer and fewer, so we are churning out graduates whose skills are irrelevant."

A more crucial factor is the shift that has happened in the industry that we have been slow to realise or react to, he adds.

"We have an economy that overrates office jobs, yet the informal sector is driving the economy. 70-80 per cent of the economy is driven by the informal sector. There are still opportunities there, but so many people are still competing for white-collar jobs."

"It's about how we have been programmed. We have been brought up thinking success is about an office job with a big organisation, even if you end up earning peanuts."

The money, Mutsotso insists, is in the jobs we still overlook.

"I have seen plumbers who get overwhelmed with jobs. It's very hard to find a good welder or mason. Even good mechanics are hard to come by. You will find a plumber who makes more than an accountant. In countries like the US, truck drivers can even make more than lawyers."

Perminus Wainaina, Human Resource (HR) Consultant and CEO of Corporate Staffing, similarly points to the paradigm shift. But he sees it more as a consequence of the changing outlook of young people.

"People now look at what the jobs they are applying will offer them," he says, "then compare it with what they could make on their own. There are more opportunities outside, especially with the advent of technology. It doesn't make sense for them to stay in a 9-5 job while they could make more money doing their own business."

The shift, he adds, is partly thanks to the historical 'misbehaviour' of companies.

"Those young people saw their parents work for one company for 20-30 years and still come home with meagre pensions. They don't want to live like that. They would rather live for today, so if an opportunity arises that allows them creativity, freedom and better pay, they will jump on that ship."

Still, Mr Wainaina points out, the jobs are there. Companies are hiring. It is up to the job seekers to elevate themselves above the rest.

"It's a very competitive market, yes. Candidates have to go out of their way to prove themselves. Find a way to stand out. It could be something as small as demonstrating that you know the field you are looking to get into. You got an internship, you have some exposure.

"Sometimes companies don't want to waste resources trying to orient you. So if you can show that while you were in school or immediately after, you took a role somewhere which helped build your skills, you are already a better candidate."