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Kenyans turn to digital careers as technology alters job market

Andela software developers working together at the Kenya office in Nairobi. /COURTESY
Andela software developers working together at the Kenya office in Nairobi. /COURTESY

Three years ago, fisherman Bernad Mulobi had his first experience with a smartphone, and it completely changed his life.

While fishing in Kiaoni village, Machakos county, Mulobi was inspired by the mobile applications to become a computer programmer.

This led to him quitting his fishing career to pursue a degree in Information Technology at Mount Kenya University.

Upon his graduation, he joined Andela, a tech firm building distributed engineering teams with software developers.

“Today, I am a mid-level software developer and excited to move up to a senior developer in the coming years,” he said.

Like Mulobi, hundreds of workers and graduates in Kenya are increasingly dropping their primary profession to pursue new careers in the world of technology.

This at a time the workspace is evolving for millions of workers and companies around the globe, as found by the World Economic Forum.

“Right now we are going through the digital revolution, and the biggest skill needed is if one can build code or develop software,” Andela country director Joshua Mwaniki said.

Coding is the act of feeding a computer with information and prescribing its commands, while software development is the act of programming applications to perform a specific task.

JOB SHORTAGE

According to the 2017 Kenya Job Market Report by KNBS, at least 5.2 million Kenyans capable of being economically active were unemployed or underemployed.

Andela, for instance, receives 2,000 job applications a month from graduates with different types of degrees. But the tech firm only has opportunities for 15 candidates per month on average, who are selected after a thorough two-week coding boot camp.

Andela has so far screened more than 100,000 applicants across Lagos, Kampala, Nairobi and Kigali since they came into the market four-and-a-half years ago.

The firm opened in Kenya in June 2015 and already has 600 employees (engineers) as of today, and 1,600 in its campuses across the globe. Its average age of employees is 25.

Similarly, job recruitment portal BrighterMonday says it receives 2 million job applications every month for every 3,000 jobs listed on their portal over the same period. That’s 66,000 applications per job listing.

“Over the past decade, we’ve seen a severe shortage of top-tier technology talent. The world needs millions of more developers than we currently have, and that number is growing,” reads a statement on Andela's website.

For the millennials, according to BrighterMonday, 55 per cent are unemployed. At least 55 per cent of them have university degrees, 37 per cent diplomas, six per cent have a Master’s degree, while two per cent have doctorate degrees.

While that’s the case, WEF 2018 Future of Jobs Report notes that technology will have displaced 75 million jobs across the world in less than three years from today.

However, it is expected that 50 per cent or about 133 million new roles created by 2022 will be in technology.

This means today’s emerging occupations — such as social media managers, data analysts and software developers — are set to grow from 16 per cent to 27 per cent of the employee base of large firms globally.

Also expected to grow are job roles based on ‘human' traits, such as customer service workers, sales and marketing professionals, training and development, people and culture, and organisational development specialists, as well as innovation managers.

On the other hand, job roles currently affected by technological obsolescence are set to decrease from 31 per cent to 21 per cent.

FRESH TRAINING

In an interview with the Star, Mwaniki said graduates are going into jobs and having to relearn skills because they don't feel like they got adequate training.

Today, the firm, often mistaken for a school, exposes its talents to recent skills and deploys to work with software engineering teams in

different parts of the world after six months.

The company has joined a growing list of firms like Google, Apple and IBM that no longer require applicants to have a college degree to work for them.

“Technology doesn't respect your degree. Technology with software development is about your own innate ability, skill development and performance,” Mwaniki said.

According to the Millennials and the Digital Marketplace report released early this month, millennials are undoubtedly drawn to experimenting and trying new things.

Findings of the report indicate that at least 46.4 per cent of them said exposure to new knowledge appeals the most to them.

This is one of the factors that would make them stay in a company for more than an average of two years.

Roam Ringier One Africa Media Group HR Carolyne Mwaura said it’s time HR practitioners adopted the latest developments in the workplace to retain talent for longer periods.

CAREER DROPPING

Following in the fisherman's footsteps is Caroline Wanjiku, a Medical Laboratory Science graduate from JKUAT turned software developer.

Before immersing herself in the world of technology in April 2017, Wanjiku worked as a medical claims officer with Jubilee Insurance.

She spent three years working with insurance claims software, which sparked her desire to make it easier for non-medics to work with the system.

This led her to search for a business process management course and the online diploma she found required her to learn programming logic. Thus began her journey into technology, which ushered her to Andela.

Just two years ago, Caroline had no idea that she would be making a career switch, and now she is a software developer working with leading technology firms around the world.

“I love engineering because it lacks bureaucracy. If I want to come up with a solution, I just need to create it. Technology not only radicalises change but also transcends various divides,” she says of her decision to quit her job as a medical claims officer.

Rehema Wachira, a graduate of Political and Social Thought from the University of Virginia, also switched her job in 2017 to pursue software development.

“I found the right combination of creativity, challenge and impact in software development and decided to switch careers from marketing,” Wachira said.

Upon completion of her studies, she worked in arts and education programmes for non-profit organisations in the US.

She then moved back to Kenya and spent three years working in advertising for Safaricom.

Her experience at Safaricom sparked her interest in technology products and the transformation influence it can have on communities.

This saw her switch her careers to software development, and today she is a fully fledged web developer working with a local NGO dedicated to inspiring women to excel in technology careers.

According to a millenial consultant Antony Wachira from Jeypent management consultancy, more graduates are likely to make a career switch on the backdrop of evolving technology.

“With technology, millennials have built new jobs and we are likely to see more skills disappearing. Communication, collaboration, creative and critical thinking are the top social skills they need to survive,” Wachira said.

MARKETPLACE FUTURE

Andela human resource director Marilyn Adell says keeping the millennial workforce engaged is the most challenging bit.

Pressure keeps mounting on traditional companies to adopt new ways of management to retain talent.

To keep staff engaged, Adell says, companies need to adopt a ‘work hard, play hard’ policy.

Andela, for instance, offers recreational activities such as PlayStation games, football, boxing, Zumba and yoga. A psychologist is also on hand to help staff.

“Just like other leading companies to work for in the world, employers need to make employees excited and look forward to coming to work every day. They are our first customers,” she said.

According to the Brightermonday report, millennials want a more culture-centred workplace and need regular employer engagement to remain productive.

Findings of the jobs portal report indicate 47 per cent of millennials prefer non-governmental organisations as their employers. This is followed closely by the financial sector at 15 per cent, IT and Technology at 14 per cent, as well as media and communications at six per cent.

Furthermore, their ideal workplace should have a well-defined work culture above pay, possess a sense of pride, be diverse and all-inclusive, and offer training and development opportunities.

“Keeping the millennial generation productive is not a one-size-fits-all affair. Employers must implement tailor-made employee-centred practices to get the best out of this dynamic demographic,” the report states.

It emphasises on an environment that is driven by authentic values and equipped with the right tools.

In an earlier interview with the Star, HR consultant Mercy Mugo said millennials appear to be more prone to immediate gratification and the need for rapid development and advancement, and that’s what their ideal job should entail.

From a policy perspective, Youth Enterprise and Development Fund chairman Ronnie Osumba said the government should revise the current labour laws and put in place policies that are responsive to the youth.

“The policies should not just prepare the youth for the future job market but also redefine what jobs are,” he said.

Osumba said firms that do not shift with or invest in millennials are likely to face a major impact on their bottom line, and the earlier they realise this, the better.

ROBOT TAKEOVER

While most millennials are switching careers, the labour market is unlikely to survive technology due to labour cost factors.

According to a study by Pathways for Prosperity Commission released in October 2018, it will be cheaper to use robots than human labour by 2032.

This means the cost of operating a robot will go down to Sh500 per hour, while the cost of human labour will increase to an estimated Sh1,300 per hour.

Currently, it is estimated that the cost of human labour is approximately Sh300 an hour on average, while the operation cost of a robot is estimated at Sh2,800 per hour.

This is compared to the US, where the cost of operating a robot is currently valued at Sh2,300 versus Sh1,600 paid as wages.

Some of the robots include humanoid robots, stationary robots, aerial and underwater robots and non-humanoid land robots.

Even so, a report on human capital released in the same month by the World Bank shows that Kenya’s human capital has declined from position 137 in 1990 to 139 out of 195 countries in 2016.

In terms of years workers can put in, Kenya was ranked position 153 out of 195, as most of them stay for up to 38 of 45 years between the ages of 20 and 65, when they are most active.

According to the commission's co-chair Sri Indrawati, newer technology must be combined with the right mix of human capital and policy ecosystems to create comparative advantage.

High-speed mobile internet, artificial intelligence, big data analytics and cloud technology are set to spearhead companies’ adoption of new technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Nonetheless, Indrawati said inadequate technical expertise is likely to cause service automation and other technologies to delay for the next decade.