The link between unemployment and poor education

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This article first appeared in my weekly column with the Business Daily on October 2, 2016

It is no secret that Kenya has a serious unemployment problem. Kenya’s official unemployment rate stood at 9.2 percent in 2014 and a report released by the World Bank this year put Kenya’s youth (aged 15-24) unemployment rate at 17.3 percent compared to 6 percent for both Uganda and Tanzania. Unemployment rate refers to the share of the labour force that is without work but available for and seeking employment. Therefore those who are under-employed or (poorly) self-employed are not captured in this figure. If both these categories were included, the number would be much higher. Some put the unemployment rate at 40 percent.

Education is linked to unemployment in Kenya. At the moment, the education system is failing Kenyan youth miserably. In terms of primary and secondary education, FSD points out that although Kenya implemented universal primary education additional costs of uniforms and books prevent many from attending school. And even when families who are able to pay for primary school costs they often cannot afford the fees to pay for secondary school. Secondary schooling is expensive and rarely accessible in underserved areas.


The Brookings Institution points out that 62 percent of Kenyan youth aged 15-34 years have below secondary level education, 34 percent have secondary education, and only 1 percent have university education. As a study by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) points out, skills are a crucial path out of poverty; indeed education makes it more likely for Kenyans to not just to be employed, but to hold jobs that are more secure and provide good working conditions and decent pay.

As it stands, Kenyan youth are barely making it to secondary school and thus are relegated to never having an opportunity to have a job that is stable and well remunerated due to the high qualification requirements of formal employment. Further, often poorly educated Kenyans are too poorly equipped to competently manage small businesses leading to low levels of productivity and profitability that characterise the informal economy. In short, the lack of access to education relegates millions of Kenyans to a cycle of poverty as they do not qualify for ‘good’ formal jobs and often do not have the skills sets to be effectively self-employed.

Sadly even of those who do attain tertiary education, most are ill-equipped to be absorbed into employment due to the disconnect between what is taught at universities and what the labour market actually requires. The JKUAT study makes the point that the commercialisation of tertiary education in Kenya has led to overcrowding in the institutions due to the increase in enrolment and this ‘massification’ policy by universities is characterised by degree programmes that do not address the job market. University administrations compromise the quality of education by accepting students without improving facilities to absorb them and seem focused on financial gain when expanding education programmes. As a result, millions of Kenyans are poorly trained and become frustrated graduates who cannot find employment.


Another report released by the World Bank this year stated that tertiary education in Kenya is characterised by a persistent mismatch of skills between what is taught and the requirements in the labour market. Kenya’s post-secondary qualifications are not adequately skilling young people, and thus many graduates are unable to find jobs due to their poor skills sets, despite the achievement of tertiary qualifications. Indeed, according to the World Bank’s Enterprise Survey for Kenya, about 30 percent of firms surveyed stated an inadequately skilled workforce as the most important constraint inhibiting growth.

Clearly the education system in Kenya is creating a mass of young people who do not have the skills required for employment or self-employment. In this failure Kenya is not only exacerbating the unemployment problem, the country is failing to leverage the demographic dividend of a young and active labour force. It is crucial that this failure in the education system is addressed if Kenya is to achieve Vision 2030.

Anzetse Were is a development economist;


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