Kenya’s unemployment crisis: The sad numbers

Jobs search

In January, 23,044 people applied to fill 293 vacant positions advertised by the Public Service Board in Bomet County.

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Emmah opens her mailbox and what awaits her is a fifth rejection email. In a span of one week, she has applied for more than 30 jobs but none has brought her the response she has been waiting for since she graduated. 

A graduate of applied communication from Multimedia University in 2021, Emmah says she is now frustrated by the entire process of job searching.

“All you do daily is throw your resume out there while receiving unfavourable responses. It’s really exhausting,” she says.

Just like Emmah, thousands of graduates churned out of tertiary institutions in Kenya every year are not able to secure employment.

In January, 23,044 people applied to fill 293 vacant positions advertised by the Public Service Board in Bomet County.

Such a high number of applicants is a clear picture of the desperation by many who still remain unemployed. 

The board also noted that 233 of those who applied for the jobs are PhD holders while 698 have Master’s degrees.

“The Board received a total of 23,044 applications comprising 13,593 males and 9,451 females. This is also inclusive of 311 people living with disabilities,” the board said in a notice dated February 27, 2023.

According to the education sector report by the National Treasury, 80,056 undergraduate students graduated from various public universities in 2021.

However, many of them are not landing jobs as soon as they graduate.

Data by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) in March 2021 shows that half of jobless Kenyans have given up looking for work, demoralised by reduced opportunities in a difficult economy that has seen many businesses scale down operations in a bid to survive.

According to KNBS, 1.23 million out of the total of 2.49 million unemployed Kenyans aged between 15 and 64 — and who qualify for the labour force — were not actively looking for employment.

The majority of those who have given up on job searching are aged between 20 and 24 at 363,018, followed by 25 to 29-year-olds at 232,146.

Fresh graduates who fall in the 20-24 age bracket noted that their job-seeking efforts are hurt by lack of experience and mismatch between skills and job openings.

Thousands of new entrants into the job market every year has also led to limited opportunities, forcing many to seek alternatives such as setting up small businesses.

Those from less fortunate backgrounds are forced to engage in menial jobs to survive as they do not have the money to set up businesses or the luxury to wait until they can land their dream job.

A study conducted in 2014 by the British Council titled Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development notes that: “Unemployment is a ‘privilege’ of the wealthy, with their greater financial security enabling them to wait for an ideal job.”

The World Bank puts the rate of unemployment among Kenya’s labour force at 5.7 per cent, a significant rise from 2.8 per cent in 2016.

When the Public Service Commission advertised the Chief Administrative Secretary position, over 5,000 applied yet only a maximum of 40 can be selected for the job. 

Recent reports indicate about 4,000 doctors are jobless, despite both public and private hospitals being overwhelmed by few staff dealing with thousands of patients every day.

More than 5,000 doctors have graduated in the past five years and have been registered and licensed to practise, according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Council (KMPDU).

However, only 1,000 doctors have been employed, with the rest joining the growing list of unemployed graduates in the country.

According to KMPDU, about seven doctors in the country have died by suicide in the past seven years after they failed to get an opportunity to practise medicine.

The union’s secretary-general, Dr Davji Atellah, noted that Kenya is the only country in Africa with a surplus of unemployed doctors but a shortage of doctors in health facilities.

“I really feel for my colleagues who, after spending six to seven years doing a course, they still have to toil for years looking for employment or work under precarious contracts that don’t offer them similar benefits as their older colleagues,” Dr Atellah said.

The union is urging counties to bridge the gap between the number of graduates and the shortage being recorded in the facilities to help tackle the widespread shortage of medics.

But even for those employed, only nine per cent have permanent jobs, showing how employers are preferring to tap temporary or casual workers to cushion their businesses. 

Federation of Kenya Employers executive director Jacqueline Mugo says temporary employment is growing in corporate Kenya in the wake of recovery from Covid-19 economic hardships, which triggered mass job cuts and business closure.

“Casualisation of employment is mainly due to the unpredictable business environment, seasonal demands and rigid labour laws that have increased the pressure on employers to pay for statutory obligations like NHIF and NSSF,” she noted.

The FinAccess Household Survey of 2022 shows 28.5 per cent of Kenyans are in casual employment. Casual jobs come without perks such as medical insurance, pension and other allowances. 

By the end of 2021, data from KNBS showed that there were 18,332,800 employed Kenyans, an increase from 17,406,700 in 2020 when there was a dip in employment due to the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

A big chunk of these jobs, 15,261,800 or 82.3 per cent, were in the informal sector where workers do not have job security or receive such benefits as medical insurance or pensions.