The job market in Kenya is like a snake that is difficult to charm. In recent figures released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Kenya is ranked as having the highest unemployment rate in East Africa. With so many students graduating each year from institutions of higher learning, a degree is no longer a guarantee of employment.
When Kelvin Ochieng, who graduated from the University of Nairobi with a first class degree in actuarial science but failed to secure a job, shared his story with the media, there was an outpouring of sympathy and offers for employment. Sadly, however, there are many more Kelvins whose stories may never be told.
Five youth with excellent academic grades share their experiences in job-seeking.
As the lives of these young people show, the situation is dire and good grades are no longer enough to get you the job of your dreams.
Howard Sindani’s is a first class Dryland Agriculture and Enterprise Development graduate from Kenyatta University. He has literally defied all odds to achieve such a fete.
“My life in campus wasn’t easy. When I joined university in 2014, I had no accommodation as a First Year student and was forced to stay outside the school. We hired a room with a friend where we slept on old mattresses,” he says.
“Since the house was still under construction, when it rained, we got soaked. The area I was staying in was so insecure that at one point I overstayed in the library and since I could not risk going home at that time, I spent the night in a bathroom.”
Relief for him came when he got a room in the university’s hostels and could now study till late in the night. However, his hardships were still on and he at one point had to survive on boiled maize as breakfast, lunch and supper.
During the day, his life alternated between class and the library.
“I rarely hung out with friends because I studied a lot. For me, passing was my ticket out of poverty. I was also member of an Agriculture club and also volunteered in Mathari Hospital as part of community service.
Upon graduation, his discipline paid off and he had 34 straight As to his first class degree. However, his turbulent times did not come to an end even after having an internship experience working with the ministry of Agriculture in Bondo, Siaya County.
With no job opportunities in sight, he had to settle for working as a construction work handyman to meet his needs. He saved some and enrolled for sign language classes, driving school and computer lessons to boost his skills. But even after sending numerous applications to potential employers, none gave him a chance.
From working as a handyman, he went to work in a car wash which was his less strenuous than his previous job. From a car wash, he has since moved to working as a supermarket attendant on a contract which expires this August.
With no opportunity to put his skills and brilliance into practice, his first class degree has not brought any good tidings even though he hoped it would. With his contract nearing termination, his fate is uncertain and if no job offer comes his way, his fate will be reduced to “tarmacking” and filling up numerous job applications.
Catherine Mwikali, an orphan, was admitted in Egerton University in 2013 to study Gender, Women and Development studies. Though scared of what would happen to her, she took the bold step and began her campus journey.
Growing up, she had always been advised and encouraged to do well in school as people who passed found it easier to get jobs. With that as her heading, she did what was needed of her and invested all her effort in her studies.
“I worked towards understanding my course as I was passionate about it and was interested in working towards empowering women and the society in general,” she says.
In time, she pictured herself providing solutions to problems such as Female Genital Mutilation, early marriages and gender based violence. She had her eyes set on working for the UN or the AMREF and she applied for internship opportunities at the organisations though she was never successful.
After graduating with a first class degree and armed with the experience she gained working as an intern at Equity Now Organisation, she was ready for the job market. However, as it turned out, she might have been reading from a different script all along.
“After graduation, I started looking for jobs everywhere, from going office to office to applying online through these job sites. I went from office to office dropping my CV even when there was no vacancy just to let them know I am open if any offers come up,” she narrates.
“There were so many jobs advertised on job sites but I have never received a single response to date even though I have filled over 1000 applications. Looking for something that you are not even sure you will get is very tough and it still is.”
The only job she has managed to get after graduation is as a data entry clerk. However, she is still she is hopeful of getting a job that suits her education background. However, the confidence she had that a first class will give her an edge is now fizzling out.
Belinda Achieng is a 2017 first class degree graduate in Commerce, Finance Option from Kirinyaga University who has nothing to do at the moment.
After graduation, like many of her classmates, she was full of hope of being absorbed in the job market having achieved the highest honour in her class. But as it turns out, that was not to be.
Coming from a humble background, her university fees was a challenge and she had to report a week later after she got her Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) loan. Several times, she almost discontinued her education as a result of not having enough money to sustain her in school. Coupled with rent as her school could not accommodate all the students in the hostels, life was a tricky balance and financial assistance from her friend was what kept her in school.
According to her, the first class honours came at a cost.
“My first class honours was not that easy to achieve as I went through hardships and sacrifices. I had spent most of the time reading and gave up on entertainment because to me I saw it as a waste of time,” she says.
Her daily routine was waking up, going to class and if there were no classes for the day she would go to the library and study or just sit in the school park and read novels. Since she stayed at a plot next to the school, she would stay late in the library studying and doing assignments.
Keen on making herself competitive in the unpredictable job market, she supplemented her degree with a professional course. “When I chose to do commerce, I did not know about CPA when in first year. Later on, I heard that with just a degree in commerce, it was not easy to get a job without a professional course. I saved the little I had and enrolled for a CPA course and pursued it up to CPA Section Four.
Upon graduation, she hoped her story would get a new life but that has not happened. “I have done over 50 physical job applications but none has landed me a job. I have also done numerous online applications that I have even lost count. However, I have never gotten any positive response,” she says.
“Immediately after graduation, I applied for jobs in various companies but was not successful. At one point a cyber attendant offered to print my documents for free because it was getting expensive for me. After job hunting for months with no luck, I started selling fruits in nearby stores but the business failed due to financial issues. I began sending again applications and found a volunteer job for three months. I worked there with no stipend. However, after completing the volunteer job, I did not get a job with them. I then started selling clothes from door to door but the business failed too.”
Naftal Mosioma and Tiberius Moseti
Naftal Mosioma and Tiberius Moseti are an interesting pair. Both were certain that their engineering degrees would guarantee them jobs but this was never to be.
Naftal graduated in 2016 with a degree in Electrical Engineering from the Technical University of Kenya while Tiberius graduated in 2018 with an engineering degree in Control and Instrumentation from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
Apart from being united by a friendship cultivated for over 15 years, the two have both been unable to get jobs.
According to Tiberius, he was drawn to engineering as he saw graduates getting jobs immediately they finished their undergraduate studies. However, when he was in his second year, things changed and he could see engineering graduates ending up jobless.
Concurring with him. Naftal was also hopeful when starting his course. He saw himself as the revolutionary engineer the country needed. However, that did not last and he had to seek another plan.
“As a hands-on person, I have always been attracted to solving problems. I prefer getting problems and solving them rather than sitting in a class all day being taught the theoretical aspect of it,” he says.
“When I saw ordinary Kenyans making amazing furniture, I was challenged. As an engineer, I knew I could do the same and even do it in a better way as compared to trained carpenters,” he says.
With that motivation, the two saved their pocket money and started a carpentry shop while still in school. There, they make furniture that unlike other carpenters’ works, has the extra touch and precision of two engineers. According to them, it was a matter of identifying what was being done by ordinary people and doing it a different way so as to cut a niche for themselves. Through marketing on their Facebook and Instagram handles Dolphin Empire Homes and Furniture, they have managed to build a loyal clientele.
However, their beliefs in terms of their degrees were very different. Whereas Tiberius considers himself ready for the job market, Naftal admits that he came out as a half-baked graduate.
“In engineering school, we were taught to work for people. We were shown how to operate machine and use different tools, no one bothered to tell us where those machines are sourced. We learnt so much theory and trained on new machines that have since been phased out,” he says.
Tiberius, who is a recent graduate, is however hopeful of getting a job where he will use his skills. “Investing five years of education to a degree and not using it to earn an income feels like a waste of time to me. I have done several attachments, projects on my own and I passed the course,” he notes.
In his job search, Naftal has been exploited by employers. He got internship opportunities where he was never absorbed after completion. According to him, some companies use this trend to exploit graduates who can offer skilled labour at low cost. So rather than employ them, they prefer getting a new bunch of interns every three months.
As a result, Naftal has since given up on ever putting his engineering skills to use. He is now content with just meeting his needs even if it means not using his engineering skills. This he attributes to them having their own business.
“In a month we make over a hundred thousand from our business even though we are still new. There is no way I am going to accept an offer where I will be put on probation for three months and be paid Sh20, 000. If I am to do an engineering job, it has to be an offer that will surpass what I make at the moment.”
Advice from professionals
The Kenyan job market is ever evolving and strategies that gave people an edge in the past few years are no longer working. According to professionals actively involved in the Kenyan job space, your life while at university determines your chances of success after graduation. To get guidance on how to avert the unemployment crisis, we got leading experts to offer their advice on the same.
Brenda Kamande is a landscape architect. For her, swallowing the bitter pill and accepting the harsh truth is crucial. “I think it's a sad situation that most graduates find themselves in and I know that every person goes through different experiences and no one has a right to discredit the other person's experience,” she says.
“However, if we are to be totally honest with ourselves, we first need to stop feeling entitled. After that, we need to get real and for a moment forget we have studied those prestigious courses. If you want to learn something, you need to be willing to get your hands dirty. If you are in the construction industry and engineering, office work comes last,” she says.
While still a student, she worked in Karura forest learning about trees and forest soil. She also worked in a construction site and learnt how to fasten steel. Additionally, she sold mitumba clothes and tried her hand in organising events. It is from these experiences that she made contacts that have been critical in advancing her career.
According to Caroline Mwende, a professional network marketer based in Nairobi, life at university should not only be dedicated to books.
“While in school, explore life outside the normal classroom. Try to learn life and entrepreneurial skills. Additionally, identify your talents and nurture them. It is also important to have mentors who have made it in the field you want to pursue and learn from their experiences,” she advises.
Additionally, she advises seeking opportunities around your field while still in school so as to get an exposure on your field and learn new and creative ways to differentiate yourself from other graduates.
Concurring with her, Abdinoor Alimahdi, CEO of North Front Technologies urges the youth to enrol in technical institutions and learn real skills to help themselves. “Innovation and creativity is the only way the youth can be self-employed. Whereas the education system prepares the youth to be employees, one needs to be creative to penetrate the market as a job creator.”
According to Ivy Vuguza, a journalism and communications practitioner, it is important to take the opportunities that arise while in college.
“Volunteering is a good place to start. During the long holidays, rather than staying at home watching movies and playing video games, go out and look for something in your line of study and ask to volunteer.”
According to her, this helps in building networks and experience in the field.
“Nowadays, companies look at experience, it’s not about what your papers say, it's all about what you can do. What skills you have, what makes you an asset to the company you want to work for,” she adds.
Concurring with her, Thomas Kisimbi, the Managing Partner at Aspen Management Partnership for Health is of the opinion that nothing can substitute experience in the workplace.
“Experience in your field of study is what gives you the competitive edge that you need to be marketable. It offers real world experience, is a great resume builder, offers great lessons on time management and managing yourself and also gives you a glimpse into what your career might look like,” he says.
He adds that he has met a lot of smart people who excel in their studies and top their classes and expect that marketplace will welcome them with open arms. However, he says this is never the case.
“Top students, with no experience or any sign of ‘hustle’ are less marketable than the less academically gifted counterparts who during holidays, went out and gained experience. When offering jobs and you often encounter an averagely gifted student who has been able to solve a real world problem. Even if they solved it badly, they will top the list any smart person who has been steeped in books and theory as they will have learnt from that experience and can demonstrate self-awareness.” he says.
To cap it all, Dr Desmond Nzioka, a medical doctor advices students to always look at the bigger picture.
“The future isn't only about masters or PhD, you are also being groomed for marriage, having a family and even life itself."