The false promise of good jobs

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What you need to know:

  • This grim picture is captured in the latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released in April this year which shows that 1.54 million unemployed people in Kenya are youth between ages 20 and 29.
  • Further, the unemployment rate has risen to 13.9 per cent from 13.3 per cent last year. 
  • This week, four recent and soon-to-be graduates share their disheartening experiences while job searching.

Picture this, you finish university and graduate full of hope and excitement at the future. You dream of launching a successful career and eventually clinching that C-Suite job. You struggle through unpaid internships to ensure you acquire the much-needed experience.

But once you get out of university, the cold reality hits you, as you meet an unforgiving and hostile job market. You make countless applications and attend tens of interviews, but the response is always the same.

This grim picture is captured in the latest data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) released in April this year which shows that 1.54 million unemployed people in Kenya are youth between ages 20 and 29. Further, the unemployment rate has risen to 13.9 per cent from 13.3 per cent last year.

This week, four recent and soon-to-be graduates share their disheartening experiences while job searching.

Victoria Mwangi, a clinical medicine graduate from Kenyatta University, Nairobi.
Photo credit: Pool

Degree in clinical medicine

I felt so proud after getting my degree from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) in June 2023. After years of hard work and focus, I couldn't wait to launch my career and help people as a clinician.

In the first few months after graduating, I tried to make ends meet through various temporary jobs, first at a salon, then online writing and thereafter I found a real estate job through family connections.

At first, the online writing gigs seemed promising, as I earned Sh350 per page for academic essays. But the assignments dried up over the university holidays, leaving me without an income source.

The real estate hustles brought me a meagre Sh1,000 per day, but I had to pay high transport charges since I had to travel long distances. This ate into my earnings. 

When my internship placement finally came through at Nakuru Provincial General Hospital, I was relieved. At least I would begin getting clinical experience, or so I thought. But the reality of the broken Kenyan public health system quickly set in.

I found out that there is chronic medication and supply shortages especially in public hospitals, and clinical officers are often forced to tell patients to purchase basic supplies like gloves and cotton wool from clinics outside the hospitals.

Frequent strikes by clinical staff protesting lack of risk allowances, stagnant wages, and poor working conditions have also become the norm in our industry. The government shows little interest in addressing our grievances, and instead threatens to slash intern salaries completely in the upcoming budget.

It is a harsh reality, as throughout university we are told that our qualifications will help us get stable, well-paying jobs. Now the passion that drove me to this career is gone. Can I really justify the sacrifices and risks I take every day working in such an understaffed and underfunded system?

Many of my classmates, even those with exemplary academic records and advanced degrees, face the same hurdles when looking for employment. Often it comes down to connections. Nepotism and tribalism, rather than merit, play a huge role in determining who gets the few clinical roles. I have been told more than once that there are some hospitals that won’t take me in simply because of my tribe.

I've come to accept the reality that I may never build the rewarding clinical career I once envisioned. The future looks too bleak, so I am trying to raise capital from my side hustles so that I can start my own business, which will have nothing to do with healthcare.

I graduated just a few months ago and my vision of becoming a healer has largely faded due to the struggles I have faced trying to find a job. While I still hope to put my education and training to use, I've realised I can't cling to that dream. I want to take control of my future, and that includes exploring avenues outside of the clinical path.

Degree in journalism and mass communication

When I strutted across the stage in my cap and gown when I graduated in 2021, I felt a great sense of accomplishment and excitement for the future. After four years of hard work at Mount Kenya University where I got a degree in journalism and mass communication, I was ready to launch my career in media production. 

I didn’t know that the job search was about to become an endless cycle of frustration and disappointment. First, I tried the traditional path. I applied for production jobs and internships at various media companies in Nairobi. I put together my portfolio, crafted cover letters touting my skills in video editing and audio production, and attended several interviews, confident that I could showcase my knowledge and passion for the industry.

But employers turned me down time and again while giving me vague feedback like, "You don't have the necessary experience" or "You need to apply again later." How could I get the vital first experience if no one would give me a chance?

As the rejection letters piled up, I started questioning everything. Did I waste four years on the wrong degree? It seemed like most people getting media jobs didn't even study the course, they just had connections or were celebrities.

I tried shifting paths by taking courses in digital marketing to expand my prospects, but I faced the same challenge – companies demanded experience, and I couldn't gain experience without being hired somewhere first. I was hugely frustrated.

Finally, through a friend's help, I got my current customer service job. It is as far from my journalism degree as it can get. It was a lucky break, being able to sell my communication skills in the interview rounds, but it is not what I envisioned for myself after university.

My situation is not unique. So many of my peers have struggled with the same unforgiving job market that seems to value connections over competence, at least for entry-level opportunities. We did everything we were told – study hard, get a degree, build experience through internships. We did it all only for the door to slam shut in our faces.

I haven't given up on my dreams to join mainstream media. I still apply for production roles, hoping that eventually someone will see my potential. But I can't ignore the countless rejections, dismissals and lack of guidance I faced as a fresh graduate. The sad truth is that the Kenyan job market puts young, skilled, passionate youth at a disadvantage by demanding that they have experience in their field.

Cynthia Walumbe is the president of the Acturial Student's Society of Kenya.
Photo credit: Pool

Cynthia Walumbe, 22
Actuarial science student

As a student who is about to graduate from Moi University, I’ve had unique insights into the changing views about this field of actuary. When I began my studies, actuarial science was not deemed as marketable anymore.

There is a growing perception, especially in Kenya, that this once highly-coveted profession has lost its luster. However, my perception completely shifted when I joined various professional groups. While many are shunning actuarial science and branding it an “outdated and unexciting career path,” I began to realise that this is not true.

From the onset, I was determined to gain exposure. I joined relevant students’ associations, forged connections with industry professionals, and actively sought opportunities to hone the skills employers value.

This proactive approach paid dividends when the time to secure an internship came. I didn’t struggle because I had the required skills. In contrast, many of my classmates struggled to find internship opportunities as they lacked fundamental assets, including a polished CV.

I don’t think it’s about connections. Most of my classmates don’t have CVs, so that is a problem on the student’s end, not the employers.

My internship experience further solidified my belief in the robustness of the actuarial job market.

The opportunities haven’t decreased. As a matter of fact, they have increased. The field’s diversification into areas like climate change analysis and sustainable development has catalysed unprecedented demand for our expertise. You can work anywhere. 

However, I understand where the skepticism is coming from. Often, students come from university ill-equipped for the professional realm.

As I prepare to transition from internship to full-time employment, I remain optimistic about my prospects, despite the prevailing cynicism. The actuarial science market is booming for those willing to equip themselves with the requisite technical and soft skills employers crave.

Edna Mwende, 25
Diploma in film

My first encounter with the harsh realities of the communication and media industry came when a respected airline advertised paid internships. Excited, I meticulously followed the application process, only to have my joy shattered.

They asked me to submit my papers, which I did, and they told me I got the position and that I would be paid.

I even received a start date, only for the HR department to contact me later informing me that I had not qualified, and that they had chosen someone who had a better grade than me in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE). Their unprofessional handling of the situation left me feeling misled, betrayed and disheartened.

I have often found myself at the mercy of an industry that values connections over merit. It doesn’t matter how ready you are, sometimes what matters is who you know.

These frustrations extend beyond the application process. I recall being invited for interviews under the guise of potential job opportunities, only to have companies exploit my ideas through lengthy technical assignments. I sent them PDFs and Word documents, but after extracting valuable insights, they would dismiss me, claiming I was either overqualified or lacked the requisite experience.

As my degree programme nears its end, I find myself grappling with the same uncertainties that have plagued me since my days as a diploma graduate. As graduation day nears, I am filled with both excitement and trepidation, for I know the challenges that lie ahead. Countless interviews and countless rejections have left me wondering whether I stand a chance in an industry that often favours status quo over fresh perspectives.

Employers are often intimidated by new ideas and innovative approaches, and prefer to maintain the familiar even if it means stifling growth and progress.

As I prepare to venture into the job market once again, I can’t help but feel a sense of resignation. The stories I’ve heard from countless other young professionals are not encouraging.

While I remain hopeful that my skills and determination will eventually open doors, the reality is that the path to success in this industry is fraught with obstacles.

It is a harsh truth that many graduates must confront. We are armed with knowledge and ambition, yet we find ourselves at the mercy of an industry that at times appears resistant to embrace the very talents it claims to seek.

Tim Mburu, a commerce graduate from Cooperative University, Nairobi.
Photo credit: Pool

Tim Mburu
Degree in commerce

I was very hopeful when going into the job market because I knew I had perfected my skills and was going to get a good job. I graduated from Cooperative University with a Bachelor of Commerce degree in February 2023 and I have done CPA until Level Four.

I got occasional glimmers of hope when I was invited for interviews, only for the hope to be quickly extinguished by that dreaded line that has become an all too familiar eyesore: “We are sorry to inform you…” I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen those disheartening words, but I’ve gone to nearly 30 unsuccessful interviews since graduation.

The most glaring pattern I’ve noticed is the power of connections. It seems people get jobs not by merit or qualification, but through connections. Of the 27 interviews I have attended so far, there was no one I knew and I suspect that those who got the roles were acquainted with the management.

It is disheartening to be more qualified than the competition, yet get constantly overlooked because I lack the right connections. Most of the time I am more qualified than the other candidates, yet I am yet to get a job.

In my current contract role, I am utilising my skills in IT and technological finance that the company doesn’t seem to value.

They don’t want to utilise these skills. All they want is someone to teach the old ways of doing the job. They have no interest in absorbing interns. This notion became apparent last year when, after training an intern for three months at an NGO job, he took over my position, and I was promptly dismissed. The very skills that earned me the role were no longer needed once I had passed them on to someone else.

I had such high hopes after campus. I looked forward to getting a job in my field of study. Now, I am forced to work in agribusiness, which is totally unrelated to what I studied.

My most frustrating experience was an interview where the panel showed zero interest in my skills or experience. Last year in Westlands, Nairobi, the interviewers only wanted to know if I knew someone at that company.

It was a shocking realisation that some employers prioritise blind loyalty over competence.

All I ask for is transparency and respect. If my skills don’t align with an organisation’s needs, a simple acknowledgment of this fact would go a long way in preserving my dignity and motivating me. To be dismissed or ignored leaves me questioning my self-worth.