Ideas & Debate

Kenya’s ticking unemployment time bomb


Jobseekers in Nairobi. FILE PHOTO | NMG

On Sunday, a week ago, one of the television channels carried a report on Kelvin Ochieng who had graduated from the University of Nairobi with a first class degree in actuarial science. He had earlier own scored straight A’s in High School. Despite his exemplary performance, Ochieng was unable to secure a job even after making several applications. He, therefore resorted to washing cars in the city centre to eke a living.

When his story was aired, there was an outpouring of sympathy and offers for employment opportunities. It is gratifying that media coverage led to a quick solution and hopefully he can now put his education and training into relevant and productive use for himself, his family and for the country.

There are larger policy issues that his case raises and which must be dealt with. A letter circulating on social media allegedly written by a corporate chief executive officer sought to advise graduates not to expect that excellent grades will translate to automatic job positions.

While true that there is more to life than academic success, education is supposed to be a path to prosperity in life.

The rate of unemployment in the country, especially among the youth is almost at crisis levels. When the youth invest their energy in pursuing education, their parents spend huge sums of money to make it possible to acquire that education and yet they are unable to secure employment then the country’s policy framework requires a rethink. Moving forward, there is need to review the country’s university education curriculum, and the country’s employment and training policies to provide a more holistic and sustainable solution to the challenges facing many graduates who have qualifications but are unbale to secure employment.

It has long been stated that our education system must be aligned to the needs of the market. While the argument is sometimes expressed in terms of getting rid of irrelevant courses, the question of relevance cannot be looked at from a simplistic perspective. The more fundamental issue is the importance of creating linkages between industry and the academy. This will not only ensure that what is taught at Universities, considers practical developments within industry, it will also make it possible to train graduates for the market.

Early exposure to industry as part of the training process ensures that by the time one graduates, there is knowledge of the workings of industry and some networks established.

As a country, there has been a lot of talk about internships. Through such a scheme, those who finish school can be able to get opportunity to work in institutions of their choice. Internships also reduces the numbers of those who will finish school and must resort to jobs that make a mockery of their education. Over a month ago I was having a discussion with a University don who teaches entrepreneurship. He decried the fact that university education is more focused on teaching people for the job market that for venturing into business or even for innovation. As the case was being discussed, the main grouse was the inability to secure employment and not about the environment for young people to pursue business opportunities.

There are many policy ideas that have been tried, including creating of funds to support youth, strategies on youth unemployment, political promises in manifestoes yet the crisis of youth unemployment is still as bad as it was several years ago.

The case of Ochieng may have pricked the country’s conscience but unless it is followed by structural and far-reaching policy measures, the country will still deal with symptoms as opposed to the real problem

The result will be increased apathy amongst the youth, disillusionment with education and preference to short cuts. In such an environment, the views captured a few years ago in a survey undertaken by the Aga Khan University where majority of young people had no qualms of being engaged in corrupt practices will not be far-fetched.

The solution though must move beyond being embarrassed when the media carries a story like Ochieng’s to avoiding the situation occurring in the first place.