Young people with good academic credentials have been captured on the streets of various towns carrying placards advertising their competencies and begging for jobs shows a worrying scenario.
Alfred Kibet Kirui, graduated with Second Class Honours (Lower Division) degree in Soil, Water and Environmental Engineering from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology last year.
A week ago, Alfred became a topic of discussion when he hinted at killing himself over unemployment. He expressed frustration in his search for a job, narrating how his peers were ridiculing him.
Ruth Rono, 27, from Baringo County also became the talk in most corners of the country after failing to get a job despite graduating with a First Class Honours degree from Chuka University three years ago.
Her sad story touched hearts, helping her land employment in one of the government corporations. It is Kibet’s argument that a degree certificate is just a piece of paper, however, that has elicited sharp reactions from the public and brought to the fore a discussion on the state of our education system and its contribution to the soaring unemployment rate.
In the face of a biting jobs shortage, many are lost on what needs to be done to correct the current situation.
Should we blame employers, institutions of higher learning or the graduates themselves? And are graduates airing their plight justified in doing so?
Figures from institutions of higher learning show that slightly above 600,000 people are graduates, out of about 30 million Kenyans in the working-age bracket of between 15 and 64 years.
According to a survey done by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics last year, seven million people - translating to about 7.4 per cent of Kenyans - are unemployed, far from a 40 per cent figure that has formed the talk in most conversations targeting the employment sector.
Whereas the survey dismisses the argument that graduates form a huge population of the unemployed, it also paints another picture. That they are more when considering the number of young people actively searching for employment opportunities.
It revealed that nine in every ten unemployed Kenyans are 35 years of age and below.
Scaring away employers
According to Monica Apete, who is still looking forward to landing her first employment opportunity in the health sector as a nutritionist four years after graduating from Egerton University, the unemployment issue is much deeper than the curriculum or even the employment industry.
“I have knocked on many office doors only to come out with the same answer. I have even created relationships with those in the human resource field, inquired about what one needs become a leading candidate in a job interview, applied the tactics in interviews, but it has all been in vain. It is much more complicated for ladies,” says the disappointed Apete.
The young nutritionist who worked as a volunteer for a year in a non-governmental organisation based in Kisumu says that there seems to be a bit of a challenge in landing employment for fresh graduates and even those who have attained experience from volunteer and internship opportunities.
“That is why most of us prefer advertising our competencies along the streets that moving from one office to the next,” she explains before adding: “We believe that goodwill only exists in the streets and not in companies or organisations. We, thus, we try to establish relationship with company owners and directors directly.”
A report released about five years ago by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation, titled Africa Youth: Fulfilling the Potential, detailed how Kenyan unemployed graduates might be making themselves unemployable by demanding too much and scaring away potential employers.
The report, for instance, cites cases where a yet to graduate engineering student asked for more than Sh80,000 as starting salary from an employer.
Skills mismatch and unaccredited courses
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation report also noted that many young people are driven into taking some courses, not because they have passion for them, but because they appear most lucrative in the job market.
This view was supported by the findings of another survey done two years ago by a communications company, Well Told Story, that reported that the country’s younger generation only cares about money and that is the reason why after prolonged unemployment, most assume that taking up an additional course is the only option.
This is what seems to have befallen Martin Mutitu who graduated from Kenyatta University in 2016 with a Bachelor of Education (Arts) degree.
He says potential employers did not offer him more than Sh10,000 a month as salary. He decided to go back to college.
“A graduate earning Sh10,000? How will I pay my bills? How will I eat? How will I send some money home?” he wonders.
But even after graduating with a Master’s degree from the same institution, the situation has not changed.
Mr Mutitu, who still does menial jobs to survive, was last week on Friday pictured holding a placard along Nairobi’s Thika Road near Ngara stage appealing to potential employers to give him a job.
Others do what they can to make ends meet. Eddy Wandera, a graduate Maseno University has been working as a morgue attendant in Kisumu. Eddy graduated with a Bachelors Degree in Criminology in 2017.
Opportunities for employment are at an all-time low yet education institutions continue to graduate at least 50,000 graduates every year. This year, the country will have slightly above 90,000 students joining various colleges and universities.
This means that even though the rate of employment is stagnating, the number of graduates from our universities will double in five years to come.
But is this all there is to it? Less than a month ago, the Commission for University education released a list of about 133 unaccredited courses offered in 26 public, private and university constituent colleges.
According to statistics from universities, the mentioned courses affect about 10,000 students with an unknown number of graduates from the said fields already in the job market.
The low number of companies and a difficult operating environment has also been mentioned as a factor contributing to graduate unemployment in the country.
For the past few years, companies known to have been absorbing a huge number of people into their work force have either reduced the number of employees or closed some branches in bid to cut overhead costs and remain afloat.
A business survey carried out a year ago reported that about 2,000 businesses had been forced to close their operations in Kenya in a period of five years. Most of the companies cited lack of funds to cover operational costs.
Alternative job avenues
Such conversations have driven the government and other organisations to develop and start initiatives aimed at creating alternative employment avenues.
The Ajira digital program and the G-United program are such initiatives targeting unemployed graduates.
State-run platform Ajira Digital, according to ICT Cabinet secretary Joe Mucheru, is aimed at creating one million jobs for the youth per year. The program launched in 2016, has been launched in more than ten universities.
It trains students on soft skills such as how to respond to clients, how to reply emails, professional etiquette and the basics of online jobs including academic and research writing.
“This is a national government project where we hope many more trained youths will use the platform to make income and reduce unemployment in the country,” said Mucheru during the launch of the California Ajira Digital Hub in Nairobi’s Kamukunji Constituency a few months ago.
Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs Cabinet Secretary Prof Margaret Kobia, has on the other hand, advised unemployed university graduates to enroll for vocational trainingto gain skills for self-employment.
Prof Kobia, in a TV interview last week, dismissed as a myth the belief that working hard in school, passing examinations, going to the university and graduating was a direct ticket to employment.
“When we go out in the field, we always advise that, if one has gone to university and they had a ‘B’ in secondary school, for example, there can enroll in vocational training centres. The government has provided enough funding through loans,” she said.
The Ministry of Education still feels that most of the ills facing the higher education and unemployment sector will be solved by the new competency based 2-6-3-3-3 curriculum.
Former Education Assistant Minister and Senior Presidential Advisor on matters Education Dr Kilemi Mwiria, nevertheless, feels that in addition to the implementation of the new curriculum, there is a need for the government to support graduate’s job searching activities by offering each Sh10,000 as an incentive each month.
“Parents sold all the land to educate them. Then you find them nagging their parents to still lend them money to prepare a CV for a job or kick-start a small business. The government should give them some money each month to cater for their expenses until they get employment,” said Mwiria in a past interview.