Busting the myths about youth unemployment

In Summary
  • Economic growth is not enough to solve youth unemployment.
  • Without employable skills, a large number of Kenyans will remain jobless regardless of the country’s rate of economic growth.

Unemployment is among the biggest concerns of our time, but a large number of Kenyans do not have the required qualifications to get jobs. They will remain unemployed no matter the state of the country’s economy.

The lack of jobs affects all age groups but it is especially dire among those aged 18-35 (the youth). This is an age group that should be building a foundation for its future. Unemployment denies the youth the income they need to raise families and invest for retirement.

Youth unemployment has, on various occasions, been described as a ‘ticking time bomb’ that will explode in the future. If the unemployment situation does not change, today’s youth will someday become elderly men and women with neither money nor property.

Half of Kenyan youth are in the transition between education and employment, according to a 2023 report by the International Labour Organisation. This is a fairly high share by African standards though Kenya is ranked as a middle-income country. However, the percentage of Kenyans who have completed secondary school is higher than Africa’s average.

A 2022 survey of Kenyan youth found they were more concerned about unemployment than youth elsewhere in Africa. The survey, conducted by the South African-based Ichikowitz Foundation, reported that 84 per cent of Kenyan youth felt the country was headed in the wrong direction compared to 68 per cent of youth in other African countries.

“Eight in 10 Kenyans between the ages of 18-24 said that they are dissatisfied with job creation efforts,” the foundation reported.

Ideal jobs

For most jobseekers, the ideal job would be permanent and pensionable in the formal sector, which includes government, large manufacturers, multinationals, NGOs and international organisations. These are mostly white-collar jobs in management, administration, research, finance, law, health and education. The reality is different though.

Data from the 2023 Economic Survey shows that the formal sector constituted just 14 per cent of all jobs created in 2022. Of the 816,000 jobs created last year, only 113,000 were in the formal sector.

Indeed, 84 per cent of working-age Kenyans are in the informal sector which consists of small and medium businesses in agriculture, light industry, hospitality, public transport, construction and domestic labour.

The Ministry of Labour and Social Protection admits that informal sector enterprises are mostly unregistered and therefore not covered by employment-related government regulations such as the minimum wage and social security contributions. Workers in the informal sector do not receive sick pay, disability pension and old-age pension, among others.

There’s another problem affecting the youth. The majority of them lack the necessary qualifications to get employed. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2022 reveals that just 19 per cent of Kenyan women and 21 per cent of men went beyond secondary school.

An ILO research paper concludes that the skills gap is the reason why older adults are taking up a large chunk of new jobs. Tertiary education and vocational training play a crucial role in explaining the gap between youth and adults in accessing the labour market. According to the ILO, tertiary education increases the likelihood of having a job by 24 per cent, while vocational training improves the jobseeker’s odds by 7.7 per cent.

Clearly, economic growth is not enough to solve youth unemployment. Without employable skills, a large number of Kenyans will remain jobless regardless of the country’s rate of economic growth. The prevalence of digital technologies in the workplace is pushing unskilled workers further into irrelevancy.

“Many of the new jobs that have been created over the past two decades are fundamentally different from the ones that have been lost, and the new jobs tend to favour educated workers over those with less education and skills,” Don Tapscott, an author, wrote in his book titled The Digital Economy.

The government has previously implemented various initiatives to help unemployed youth. The initiatives include the Youth Enterprise Fund, Kazi Kwa Vijana and Kazi Mtaani.

As Oscar Ochieng’ of the Institute of Economic Affairs explains, the initiatives were meant to create jobs for the youth while sharpening their entrepreneurship skills.

However, the initiatives were afflicted by corruption and poor management. “These initiatives are noble but they have failed to achieve the intended objectives due to lack of committed leaders to oversee successful implementation of the projects,” Ochieng’ says.

“There have been cases of embezzlement of funds, poor monitoring and evaluation mechanisms to measure results, and lack of entrepreneurial skills from the youth.”

Youth must do more

Ochieng’ argues that while government is responsible for creating job opportunities, the youth must do more for themselves. “Young people must also rise to the occasion, be creative and look for something meaningful to do with their lives without entirely waiting for financial assistance from the government,” he asserts.

Looking at the dwindling number of jobs in the formal sector, combined with the large number of unskilled workers, it is not hard to see why the government is convincing jobseekers to start businesses. In essence, the government is persuading jobseekers to employ themselves because available jobs aren’t enough for everybody. This approach is facing challenges though.

Unemployed youth have no start-up capital to establish businesses. Most of them have no money to rent a space, buy equipment and market their products or services. Few young people have property that they could use as security for loans. Besides, banks are reluctant to lend to youth-owned enterprises fearing the loans might not be repaid.

Starting and running a business requires a significant amount of skill that newbies don’t have. Developing a business plan, marketing, financial management and managing employees are learned through training and experience.

Infrastructural challenges that affect established industries equally affect upstart businesses. Electricity and water supply are mostly unreliable. Businesses have to spend money on electricity generators and getting water delivered by truck (or handcarts). The additional expenditure can drive a business into losses.

There’s a hidden barrier to youth entrepreneurship: culture. As stated at the beginning of this article, the wish for most people is to get a permanent and pensionable job. Going into business is seen as a last resort, something to do while awaiting the much-promised jobs.

The Overseas Development Institute notes that youth programmes on entrepreneurship do not take into account the role of the family and community. Family support to start and operate a business is one of the most influential factors in the ability of entrepreneurs to make headway, especially for rural youth.

“Finding ways to engage and gain support from families and communities is vital,” Claudia Pompa, research officer at ODI, recommends.

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