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Barbarians at the Gates? The Unemployment Plight of Africa's University Graduates

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Barbarians at the Gates? The Unemployment Plight of Africa's University Graduates

The plight of our youthful university graduates in Africa is quite paradoxical. For many of them, education has not unleashed economic opportunity nor social security. In spite of improving economies, graduates exit their institutions of higher learning fearing that a very long period of unemployment and frustration awaits them. Weaned from their parents' money, the best they can do is garner the skills needed to survive on poverty's edge, often in the informal sector.  In this article, I discuss the challenge of unemployed graduates in Africa, including modest proposals on how to address the challenge going forward.

Matunda ya Uhuru

In the independence decade of the 1960s, eradicating ignorance through education was a key policy pillar throughout Africa. However, governments pursued fairly conservative policies, while also running the bulk of the tertiary institutions. The "fruits of independence" went to a chosen few.  This changed radically from the 1980s, with the opening up of tertiary education to the private sector. Today, thanks to the "youth bulge," and expanding economies, the number of young Africans holding university diplomas and degrees is larger than ever before. This is quite a milestone. 

The new private universities have, however, focused more on business and social sciences, which have lower costs than bio-medical sciences and engineering, for example. The number of graduates in the former has shot up, reaching over 150,000 annually in East Africa alone. Many of them are destined for long bouts of unemployment and "walking the streets" in search of jobs. While a number will be swallowed up by the informal sector, the proverbial waiting station for modern employment, many don't know where to turn. The following vignettes are illustrative.
Dentist in Tunis
One day, some three or four years ago, I was picked up by a young Tunisian taxi driver from the offices of the African Development Bank then based in Tunis, on my way back to my residence, to the north of the city. After some silence as he dodged the hectic traffic, he asked me: "Mr. can you tell me how I can get job at BAD?" using a mixture of English and French and the latter's  acronym for the Bank. This question was posed frequently in bustling Tunis as many young people wanted to find as much information as possible on this African financial behemoth in their midst. Still, there was such a sense of desperation in the young man's voice that I became quite curious.

"So what job are you looking for? What have you studied?" He told me that he was a dentist by training, having graduated three years previously and had been searching for a "decent job" ever since. Apparently the country's public universities graduated hundreds of dentists every year, and jobs were simply not there if you didn't have the right connections. "My friend, who know English have found job in Africa, but me very poor English," he explained, making Africa sound like a far-flung land, as he gesticulated dangerously. He was becoming quite agitated and I was holding tightly to my seat in the back of the taxi, just in case. "I am also studying MBA at University here in Tunis, and also English," he added helpfully, as I asked him to take the final turn to my part of the town.

I cannot tell whether this educated taxi driver was eventually involved in the "Arab Spring" revolution that originated in Tunisia and soon engulfed the rest of North Africa. A young man of similar age tried to make ends meet in a provincial capital by selling fruit and vegetables, but without a street vending license. He was roughed up by the police. The merchandise, his only source of livelihood, was destroyed. He put himself on fire, literary fanning the embers of revolution in that country.

 Young unemployed graduates in other African countries, although pushed around daily by the police, paramilitary outfits, lower level bureaucrats, and village "prefects" are not yet putting themselves on fire. The most surprising element of the Tunisian revolution was that nobody was quite able to predict its intensity and ferocity. It took almost everyone by surprise, especially since the country is one of the more affluent on the continent. 

Statistician in Abidjan

 When the rumor of the impending return of the African Development Bank to Côte d'Ivoire after a decade in exile in Tunisia became fact, as the restoration of the Bank's old headquarters commenced, the youth of Abidjan started aligning their employment expectations accordingly. They would of course not all find jobs in the Bank, but something was bound to fall off the big tree. The Bank finally returned in 2014. 

As in Tunis, many taxis were manned by university graduates. One morning a sully-faced young man literary pushed his  green file into my face as I opened the door to enter the Bank premises. "I am a statistician," he pronounced hurriedly. He  offered to pick me up later in the day to drive me home, but perhaps more accurately to see what I had for him. I gently declined the papers, but was struck by the similarity of the encounter with the one back in Tunis.

In both cases very young and able people were trying their best to lift themselves up from the dilemma of the drudgery of their lives. They sought careers that befitted their education and expectations. The sad truth was that they were the lucky ones. They had something to do, while their age-mates didn't, and were meeting people that could fire their imagination.

"Don't Step into Mine"

I did not encounter female university graduates driving taxis in Tunis nor Abidjan, but I gather that there are some in Nairobi. Still, women graduates without formal employment have found ingenious survival mechanisms of their own in many parts of Africa. Examples include food vending in the evenings on major thoroughfares, using mobile dining facilities, known in Kampala as "don't step into mine." During the day, business shifts to discreet corners and behind government offices, where they provide "tailored" breakfast and lunch. These are expected to be temporary arrangements but they never are.

 More promising perhaps, young female graduates have become fairly astute real estate agents. I encountered one during a visit to Kampala with a degree in social work, who spoke eloquently in terms of acres, decimals, distance from the expected spur of the Entebbe Highway to Munyonyo etc. "You simply can't go wrong on this deal," she said, one hand working the calculator of her cell phone but interrupted constantly by new calls coming in.
The researcher in me wasn't interested in land deals, but in her own working situation. "So how many deals a day do you need to turn things round?"  I asked.  She looked at me incredulously. "A day? Ah! Three months is more like it. I am in it for the contacts. Meeting people like you. I know one day, I will find someone who will give me a real job."

Yes, there was no mistaking her stamina. 

Modest Policy Proposals

In conclusion, the interesting question is why do thousands of young Africans and their parents continue to pay large sums of money to pursue an education which does not provide direct employment? Do African households harbor perverse incentives i.e. enjoying throwing money at worthless pursuits?
it is clear that education does more than provide a job. It is a tool for socialization and for creating life-long social networks. However, it would mean nothing if its impact remained at the moral level. To address youth unemployment, including university graduates, African governments have mulled the idea of returning to compulsory national service. However, it didn't work well in the past. What might do a better job is the creation of national retraining centers for the generation of new and practical skills at short notice, with the participation of the private sector.
Three areas of promise for expanded youth employment are the education sector, infrastructure development, and the private sector. In all three cases, what is needed is to retrain our youth, using "crash" courses if necessary. Yes, the argument that the school system should turn increasingly towards technical education etc. is valid but inaction will not solve the employment dilemma of today's graduate.
Thanks to universal primary education, millions of children are going to school in East Africa, and beyond. However quality is halting for lack of good teachers. With some retraining and improved pay, a large number of unemployed young people could be employed in the education system, raising its quality and prestige.
In infrastructure, the many on-going public works projects could be made more labor intensive, while things like wiring and systems maintenance could be taught to young graduates, even if their "major" was English. The new skills would open new opportunities. 
The private sector, through its associations, could indicate the type of skills and training that it requires. There are many potential welders, electricians, and plumbers among today's unemployed youth with degrees.
Yes, people with degrees have already demonstrated a high level of intelligence and ability to absorb new facts. All that is needed is to redirect youthful energies in another direction, through hands-on practical training and mentoring.
Level 2 (XP: 450)
Everywhere we say things have changed so has the fuss about education translating to a white collar Job, I opine that the definition of a Job needs redefining to that of whatever puts food on table, we refuse jobs because they do not meet our dreams, roles or assignments are everywhere unless one means well for his community even if they were employed they shall done no transformation of society. One looks at the father digging or looking after animals what does the young man of my time say: that is daddy's work not of my age I shall get ashamed...
Muniini K. Mulera
last year
Excellent! The stories of the three young people tugged at my heart, Steve. They are victims of our collective refusal to decouple ourselves from the "good old days" when a university degree was a passport to an easy life of the big man in the big offices of colonial and early post-colonial Africa. I like your suggested solutions.

I would add that a change in the rulers' mindset is a critical step in easing the problem of youth unemployment. How much is spent on the bloated numbers of the political class? How much of it could be freed to fund infrastructure projects in every district or county that would offer jobs to our university graduates? Do "development partners" have the strings to pull in this?

I agree that we need short-term solutions for the current problem. However, a cultural re-booting is needed. Vocational/technical education and apprenticeship is the way to go.

The OECD figures for 2012 are quite interesting. The country with the highest percentage of university graduate holders (age 25-64 years) was in Norway at 35.8 percent. Canada ranked # 7 with 27.7 percent. Austria had only 12 percent.

My view is that East Africa needs fewer universities, not this ever-increasing number that seems to be driven by fashion more than quality and integration with the overall economic strategy of the country.

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