In August of 2009, I graduated with a Bachelors degree. At the same time the American economy was tanking. I also realized that where I was working, my recently required certificates and honors would not gain me any promotion or higher salary. I decided to rejoin the university and pursue a master’s degree. Perhaps, just perhaps (I thought) in two years or so the economy would have recovered and I would have added a feather to my cap to ensure that I secure that coveted permanent career-building job.
In May 2011 I graduated with my Masters degree, the American economy was even worse. In the 2 years that I was pursuing my Masters, I could barely get an unpaid internship, let alone a part-time job. I realized that things had gotten worse and not better. After a few stints in Washington DC, I decided to relocate back to Kenya and try my luck. I was even more shocked. With me in the job search market were engineers, lawyers, doctors, bio-chemical science majors and IT professionals (I have a degree in development and masters in global governance). In typical African fashion most people had a bachelors degree, a Masters degree, several certifications, were Certified Public Accountants /Certified Public Secretaries, were working to get another qualification and of course had completed some language or leadership course here and there. A few even were in the process of pursuing PhDs.
My heart sank, how was I going to get a job in this market? After 6 months I broke through and got a job that was completely unrelated to anything I have ever wanted to do. But it lets me lead a comfortable life and that is everyone’s dream right?
I bring up this personal story as an introduction to the discussion about over-education in Kenya. It seems that Kenyans are highly educated, but regardless of their level of education still suffer unemployment. There are various ‘jobless corners” in Nairobi and in many of these you find young men and women with brown envelopes, many of them highly qualified. Some have resorted to giving free advice and lectures on the street to keep them occupied. Their desperation is written on their faces as they await the call that for some never comes.
When I was growing up, the idea was that if you studied certain majors, you were guaranteed to get into a cushy profession with a very good salary. These were law, medicine, architecture, chemical sciences and engineering. However, I have been repeatedly surprised to find people who studies these same majors, and graduated with flying colors are salesmen, bankers, development specialists; anything but practicing their profession (no offence to the professions mentioned). I have workmates (with Masters degrees) who are currently pursuing PhDs, ACCA certifications and getting more education, all in the hope that this will open doors for them to get better jobs and better salaries. I am praying that they succeed however given the trend; I wonder whether more education is the answer.
The unemployment rate in Kenya is 40% this means that 4 out of 10 Kenyans are unemployed. Most of these people are youth in their 20s and have just left school. Unfortunately they cannot fill in positions as they have spent a lot of their time in school and have no job experience to show. Many youth in the end choose to go back into school and get more education – which is not what they need. What they need is work experience. The problem is that when someone shows up at your interview with a PhD but only 2 years of work experience, you get worried. Can they be a good manager? Will they be able to navigate the workplace dynamics? Can they deliver under pressure? Can they own up to mistakes and bring viable solutions to the table?
The other dilemma to education in Kenya is that not all of it is top quality. There is a university on every corner of every town/city. Colleges have been glorified into fully certified universities; their names as questionable as their staff and their curriculum. This means that getting a masters degree in Kenya is no longer a big deal; there is one offered everywhere. It is no wonder then that employers still value a degree from the U.S. or from the European countries over the local degrees. This places local graduates at a disadvantage when it comes to the job search. I am not saying that Kenya should not provide as many opportunities as possible for Kenyans to access higher learning; I am however stating that perhaps the standards should be raised and closely monitored.
So back to the question, are Kenyans over-educated and unemployable?
The answer is Yes.
Unfortunately the employment crisis has led many young people to believe that what they lack is education, therefore when the youth get their first degree and fail to get a job, they go back into school and get a second degree in the hope that when they graduate the market will be friendlier and their new-found qualification will open doors. Unfortunately this is not always the case.
The answer to this dilemma lies in pushing the youth to garner experience while they get education. Volunteering is a new concept in Kenya and when it takes hold it may solve the issue of lack of work experience. My cousin just spent 4 months hanging around the house – on holiday from university. If he was in the US, he probably would have gotten a job flipping burgers or delivering pizzas but it would have given him the job experience that every employer is looking for. Our Kenyan education system requires internship and few interns take these opportunities seriously. For others it is their first time in a workplace setting and they fail to make an impression and therefore do not convert the internship into a meaningful experience.
The youth today should also look beyond getting that 2nd or third degree. Getting more education is not always the answer, sometimes venturing into your own business will solve the problem of employment. Many Kenyans are looking into self-employment now, some are successful others not so much. The secret lies in acknowledging that you do not have to be employed to succeed in life. Sometimes self-employment is the answer.
For those in a position to employ or to give internships, this is an opportunity to impact a young person’s life. Don’t use interns and volunteers; teach them. Show them the world of working and responsibility. Teach them what they need to know in the workplace. Encourage them to get as much experience as they can. This will ensure that even with their education they will be able to get respectable jobs in the market.
Lastly, gone are the days when only certain degrees mean success in the workplace. Granted there are some new professions, which have very few people and therefore will have more job opportunities. In the 90s studying IT was all the rage; now we “google” most of the things which were privy to the IT professionals. We should encourage the youth to take up subjects that interest them but can also give them opportunities for entrepreneurship. This will ensure that even as students graduate and enter the market they can think of both employment and self-employment. We don’t have to be over-educated and unemployable, we can be over-educated and successful entrepreneurs.