youth unemployment in Kenya www.businesstoday.co.ke
New graduates who enter the workforce were simply given one path, one option in life: go to school, get a degree, and get a job.[

I am in receipt of an invitation letter from The Employment Think Tank Forum that reads:

Dear Prof.Achoch,

I am inviting you to our Employment Think Tank Forum on Tuesday 12th November 2019 at the Barrack Obama University. Every year we celebrate the said event to look at the employment trends in the country. To have you as our guest speaker would be an honour to the experts and senior Government policymakers who will be there.

We would like to hear your ideas on how you have advised international and local Governments on Youth employment issues with specific reference to university graduates and how the ideas have been turned into successful employment generation programmes.

It is also our pleasure to inform you that we will take care of your flight and hotel reservation. Please contact our office and talk to Ms. Edwina if you have any questions. We look forward to your response, and we hope you’ll accept the invitation.

Sincerely Prof. Akili Mingi

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This invitation excites me. Some firms have fired employees in the recent past, including, James Finlay (1,100), East African Portland Cement (1,000), Kenya Airways (600), Telkom Kenya (575), Karaturi (3,000), Airtel (144) and Kenya Power (302).

I check the Economic Survey 2019, which is further depressing. Data shows 78,400 new formal jobs were created in the economy in 2018 compared to 114,400 in 2017. This is the slowest pace of formal job since 2012 when the economy created 75,000, adding to the crisis of youth unemployment.

In addition, more than 15 of the 62 companies listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange (NSE) reported net profit dropped by at least 25% last year compared with 2017. One thing that I have noted is that Kenya labour statistics do not capture job cuts and net employment. It is clear that companies in Kenya are struggling with reduced sales and profits in the soft economy.

To prepare my presentation for the Employment Think Tank Forum I head to my library specifically the section on “Government reports and statistics”. What I glean from the literature review is interesting as the reports indicate that the demand for labour has grown less rapidly than the number of people in search of gainful employment.

Slow formal sector growth

 In addition, the economy has not created adequate opportunities for those who want to engage in self-employment. Various government policy documents, for example, the country’s long-term development blueprints such as Vision 2030, the first Medium Term Plan (2008–2012), and the Labour, Youth and Human Resource Development Sector Plan (2008–2012) have tried to deal with this problem.

Further readings reveals that the country’s employment problem is  manifest in slow growth of formal sector employment vis-à-vis a burgeoning informal sector that offers a large and increasing number of unsustainable jobs; a 12.7% open unemployment rate; increasing numbers of working poor; rapidly changing forms of employment with limited job security; and high youth unemployment.

However, at the outset of the second term plan period, in 2013, unemployment, estimated at 12.7%, with youth unemployment at 25%, remains a critical development challenge.

Overall, studies show that Kenya’s employment crisis, especially that affecting post-secondary graduates is such that there are a large number of unemployed graduates side by side with unfilled positions in the public and private sector, both formal and informal, due to a mismatch between the skills needed and those available. 

I learn from the Kenya Workforce (2011/2012) Survey report that there is increased capacity, intake and out turn from most education and training institutions, increasing the number of fresh graduates entering the labour market, but at the same time, capacity underutilisation in some institutions.

 This survey recommends that, to address the problem of capacity underutilisation, Kenya needs to improve the quality of training offered in existing programmes in universities and middle-level colleges, instead of prioritising expansion and addition of new institutions and programmes as at present.

General policy documents

I encounter two problems when examining the composition of the labour markets in Kenya. There are many policy initiatives and statistical data focusing on the youth generally, without disaggregating them by level of education, the stock of skills they hold and the range of skill required. This particularly applies to universities, whose recent expansion and introduction of new degree courses does not seem to have been informed by any labour market surveys.

A recent Government survey indicates that youth with primary education, 4% are in formal employment, 54% in informal employment and 14% are unemployed. Of those with secondary education, 12% are in formal employment, 40% in informal employment, and 15% unemployed.

Of those with tertiary education, 31% are in formal employment, 9% in informal employment, while 8% are unemployed.

These figures give the impression that graduate employment and underemployment are less of an issue than that of young people with only primary or secondary education, despite the general perception that Kenya is experiencing high levels of graduate unemployment.  I am, however, unable to define youth graduate unemployment, as data on graduate destinations does not exist and government policy focuses on the youth more generally, so this figure for graduate unemployment may not be reliable.

Given these definitional difficulties, and in the absence of reliable data, I am not able to establish whether the perceived high levels of graduate unemployment in practice refer to the failure of many graduates to obtain the kind of formal jobs to which they aspire, or that it implies that they lack the skills needed to engage in any income generating activity.

In addition, I discover that  Kenya’s workforce is overwhelmingly in informal employment, with only 1.3 million people working in the modern formal sector, against over 12 million in the informal economy, defined as including smallholder farming (6.5 million), self-employment (2.7 million), and informal wage work (3.1 million).

My analysis reveals that youth with less than secondary education constitute about two-thirds of the youth workforce (all youth 15–35), with the stock of youth with less than primary education growing at 4% a year, those with less than secondary education shrinking slightly, while the educated workforce stock, comprising 3.5 million secondary school graduates and 1.2 million tertiary graduates, is expanding relatively quickly. These point to a scenario where the number of post-secondary education graduates is increasing rapidly, but many are joining a fast-expanding informal sector in which these levels of education are not required.

I start to notice the manifestation of a ‘skill mismatch’. While it is difficult to attribute skills problems primarily to supply or demand factors, I seem to be reaching consensus with myself that the education system at every level has weaknesses that account for the problem of skill gaps. With regard to university education, I identify challenges relating to graduates’ lack of both soft and technical skills (including ICT), and even if they have the latter, they may be out of date or irrelevant. As many as 49% of new graduates from Kenyan universities are not adequately prepared for the labour market one of the reports asserts.

I seek explanations for this. I am surprised to read that universities and higher education policymakers think the universities are doing a good job, and blame graduates’ difficulty in obtaining employment on either the failure of job opportunities to expand in line with labour force growth, or failure on the part of employers to provide students with opportunities for apprenticeships or to engage with universities more regularly on curriculum review. 

The continued standoff between universities and professional bodies over the refusal of the latter to accredit professional programmes in a number of institutions has added a new dimension to the problem of graduate employment.

In the opinion of these professional bodies, the universities are offering programmes that lack the requisite infrastructure and suitably qualified staff to ensure that students learn the desired level of skills. Other challenges that hinder a seamless transition by university graduates into work include lack of timely labour market information; limited linkages between employers and training institutions; poor management of industrial attachments and low registration levels of graduates with the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) which is in charge of regulating and co-ordinating training and attachments in Kenya.

Besides the above challenges, my research reveals the extent to which the national government policies have articulated the issue of graduate employability as a problem affecting the university sector as being limited. Most national policies focus on the youth in general, although the youth employment policies have not been robust, and inadequate physical infrastructure, poor macroeconomic management, weak governance, and corruption have hindered their implementation. 

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Recent reforms have focused on strengthening labour protection and establishing youth targeted employment programmes and funds, but youth employment outcomes have been limited due to factors related to programme design as well as implementation. Meanwhile, the problem of university education is articulated as the need to expand access and improve quality, with the intention of producing graduates who are ‘job creators’ rather than ‘job seekers’, a stance that has informed much public debate about university education.

What is interesting is a new technical, Industrial, Vocational Education and Training (TIVET) policy which has been adopted, which offers promise for improving education relevance and quality. However, its implementation has not been completed.

Over the last five years, plans have been drawn up for the expansion and modernisation of TIVET institutions and universities, including a new policy and legal framework that will create a TIVET Authority to oversee curriculum reforms and strengthen the role of industry in TIVET institutions.

In the university sector, the government is, in the long term, investing in science, technology and innovation (STI) and intends to refocus the universities to undertake targeted research, development and innovation (RDI) in strategic sectors.

 The STI policy and STI 2013 Act is intended to leverage STI to transform the economy through implementation of selected national priority areas, creation of an effective and efficient Kenya National Innovation System and commercialisation of research outputs through the Innovation Agency (KENIA), and mobilisation of at least the equivalent of two per cent of GDP annually from the government, private sector and other sources to fund the entire value chain.

The government hopes that these reforms will address the problem of graduate unemployment in the medium to long term by expanding the economy and therefore formal job opportunities, while improving the quality of graduate skills.

The challenge that I note is that the government has failed to provide sufficient resources for the desired expansion, which has forced universities to engage in commercial behaviour, especially the admission of fee-paying students, and has undermined quality.

If you read the Kenya University Education Strategy to 2015 it proposes that beyond the internships and industrial attachments that are a requirement in professional degree programmes, universities should initiate linkages with multiple stakeholders. Such linkages are intended to lead to progressive innovative institutions with mandates informed and enriched by the experiences, expertise and resources of these partners.

 The strategy also proposes an increase in faculty internships and short-term consulting opportunities in industry to improve the relevance and quality of teaching.

I am satisfied with what I have collated so far. I sit down to put my thoughts together and decide to have my talking notes for my presentation will be on the following key areas;

A lot of people complain about youth, as does every generation. They say that youth are too lazy and entitled. That their parents worked harder and they should be grateful. That’s not really fair, though. Their parents weren’t in HELB debt, unemployment was not rampant, and automation wasn’t replacing them at unprecedented rates.

New graduates who enter the work force have done nothing wrong. They are certainly not lazy. They were simply given one path, one option in life: go to school, get a degree, and then you can get a job.

They spent all of this time, effort and money working towards this goal. The “promise” of succeeding in this path might have not been written out explicitly, but society gave them little choice. The education system encouraged them to do so and their parents likely followed along.

Upon graduating they realized that this economic promise didn’t come to fruition so easily. Again, they did nothing wrong. The problem is in the framework and in the way our economic model incentivizes people. The economy is largely controlled by a few local companies and branches of multinational companies. They have money and jobs. They decide whether or not to hire you.

The system is broken

If these companies don’t need your skills, then you are out of luck. My sentence may seem so matter-of-fact that it might not warrant a second glance. But really, it’s the way we choose to see reality. We are cycled through this education system with not much option and then are at the whim of profit-seeking companies to make a living.

These are the same companies who want to maximize efficiency and won’t blink twice to lay-off employees or restructure when ‘things aren’t going well.’ But it’s not the fault of the companies. They are simply operating in a world where maximizing profit is the incentive.

The big assumption that is drilled into our heads during school is that people need to work for other people. That when you exit school, you get a job. In the words of Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, are people born to be working for somebody else or born to do things they want?

Without knowing anything, probably you’ll say no, people are not born to work for somebody else. That’s not how it works. When human beings came to this planet, they were not sending out job applications. The financial system (including loans and credit) is of course cantered around this model, that is, wealth is concentrated.

So, what’s the solution?

I don’t know, but Prof Muhammad Yunus the founder and managing director of Grameen Bank, which pioneered microcredit where small loans are given to the poor, mostly to women, without collateral, for income-generating activities, to help them get out of poverty has an idea that’s shown some real progress.

He is famous for leading the microcredit movement in Bangladesh and now he’s trying to flip this whole model on its head.He says that instead of going through life expecting to get a job, rather, we should be job creators. He believes everyone is an entrepreneur.

He says don’t ask for a job, make your own. This may seem like a bold statement, but it’s really not. It’s just contrarian. (opposing or rejecting popular opinion or current practice)

For most of history we have been entrepreneurs. As hunters and gatherers, we had to solve problems every day. We had to figure out how to feed ourselves. We were bakers, farmers, cobblers, blacksmiths.

We had street stalls and restaurants and shops and offered our services. Perhaps we need to expand our definition of entrepreneurship. If given a chance, we have the capacity for great creativity.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for a company. Not at all. No individual could have been able to create the microprocessor or iPhone. We need lots of people and lots of companies to innovate. The greater point is that people have options — job taker or job creator — but the system we have in place only fosters and really supports one path.

My conclusions and recommendations for the conference paper are that the graduate employability perception is an increasingly serious problem in Kenya, especially among employers. The latter lay the blame on the quality of training provided by the universities, which has, in their view, created a pool of unemployed graduates in a labour market that is experiencing skill shortages.

Universities need to invest more in obtaining systematic data on labour market skill demands and on demand for graduates from various courses.

Beyond such complaints, however, there do not appear to be any systematic interventions by employers to engage with institutions to improve the quality of skills training. Employers should, for example, provide technical assistance to universities in order to enhance career guidance and career services.

 In addition, the interaction between university students and potential employers in their fields of study should be strengthened, through events, field visits, and practicums/ internships. Programmes should also seek to mainstream mentoring into student-faculty interaction and internships.

Awareness should be broadened among employers of the importance of engaging with the institutions more frequently especially regarding issues of curriculum review and labour market projections to improve information availability, especially regarding potential career pathways. Few employers participate regularly in institutional curriculum reviews nor are they providing adequate opportunities for students to undertake volunteering and internships before they graduate.

On the other hand, institutions take a long time to review their curriculum, if at all, to meet the expectations of employers. Universities, on their part, continue to claim that they are producing good quality graduates, but data rarely exists to confirm most of these claims.

Investing in systematic data collection by both employers and universities is one of the challenges that need to be addressed immediately. Universities need to invest more in obtaining systematic data on labour market skill demands and on demand for graduates from various courses, and to be better informed of the skill requirements and curriculum adjustments needed to meet these labour market demands.

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Nevertheless, while the institutions need to improve on issues like frequent curriculum reviews, expanding the range of student experiences while at the institutions and gauging labour market trends, the economy would need to expand as fast to accommodate the number of graduates leaving the universities.

Despite these challenges, it is interesting that student perceptions on their employability are changing. Students increasingly perceive a university as not only important for getting a job but it can also empower them to be self-employed and create job opportunities. The problem is that neither the institutions nor employers are providing students who wish to become self-employed with adequate skills and the context is often not conducive to realising these aspirations.

I write back to Prof. Akili  Mingi accepting his invitation as the keynote speaker for the conference.

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About the Author

Dr Elijah Achoch is a Human Resource Management and Development Specialist and an adjunct lecturer in Kenya's top universities Business Schools. He holds a PhD degree in HRM from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. Email: [email protected]

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