PhD holders, young graduates, fight for survival – and jobs

By Wilson Odhiambo 

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising rate of unemployment in Kenya make the phrase ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ a reality for many highly educated people.

In June 2021, University World News highlighted the plight of biotechnology graduates in Kenya who spend half a decade pursuing their degrees only to end up unemployed and forced to do odd jobs to earn a living. Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic that has crippled the world, having a PhD also does not seem to carry a lot of value.

John Timon Owenga, Violet Otieno and Daughty Akinyi all have PhD degrees but have been forced to make do working as primary school teachers due to a lack of suitable job opportunities for people with their qualifications, Nation reported in September 2021.

Owenga and Otieno graduated in 2018 with PhDs in educational psychology and early childhood development education (ECDE) respectively. In 2019, Akinyi followed suit, also graduating with a PhD in ECDE.

PhD holders are regarded among the best-educated people in society and are usually expected to secure well-paying jobs, especially in areas of research.

Normally, the lowest position one would expect to find a PhD holder in is that of a lecturer at a college. However, as the current economic crisis dictates, this is a benefit that these three scholars are yet to enjoy.

No opportunities at universities

Owenga finished his masters in 2013 in the hope of getting a higher-grade job, only to find that there was no position for someone with that qualification within the Teachers Service Commission (TSC). They encouraged him to study further and get a PhD.

“I had to look for more money, which meant taking out loans. I then applied for my PhD at the Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University of Science and Technology,” Owenga told Nation.

Owenga said that, while other scholars took longer getting their doctorates, it took him only three-and-a-half years. However, despite all the time and money, Owenga is yet to find a position suitable to his level of qualification.

“The universities lack enough staff and would like our services, but they do not have enough money to employ us, which is a challenge,” Owenga explained. “The TSC knows of our qualifications but, due to a lack of opportunities at the higher job levels, we have been requested to remain where we are.”

Akinyi said that “With my doctorate in ECDE, I could render my services at the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development in the Department of Early Childhood, and I could also work in the [Kenya] Ministry of Education as a sub-county director in charge of early childhood programmes. I could also work in a teachers’ training college [which offers] a diploma in early childhood development.”

On average, a lecturer at a university in Kenya is expected to earn at least Ksh100,000 (about US$1,000) a month, which is a lot more than what Owenga, who is the deputy headteacher at Rabuor Primary School, earns.

According to the TSC, the expected minimum remuneration of a deputy primary school headteacher is about Ksh59,000. Akinyi, a grade 1 teacher at Agai Primary School in Nyakach sub-county, earns about Ksh26,000 a month.

Doctors forced to hide their titles

Aside from the massive difference in salary expectations, the lack of job opportunities has also been a humbling experience for the three PhD holders who have had to temporarily shun their titles to fit in.

Some pupils, Otieno explained, have been wondering what a doctor was doing teaching at a primary school instead of treating people at the hospital.

“It takes God’s grace and humility to work in a primary school with that kind of title. To some extent, it may scare your seniors. For instance, if you are teaching in a school where the headteacher does not even have a degree, if you make a small mistake like coming to school late, they may feel you are doing it because you feel you are better than them,” Otieno explained.

“The class I was teaching at times would ask why I was called a doctor, yet I was teaching at a primary school, and I had to explain to them how the title is earned,” she added.

According to Owenga, the title at times feels like a curse as it prevents him from sharing his ideas and opinions, especially with his bosses who may feel he is trying to belittle them with his advanced education.

Backbreaking work for US$1 a day

About 129km from Kisumu is Bomet county where University World News met Meshack Rop, a mechanical engineering graduate from the University of Nairobi, who resorted to crushing stones for US$1 per day just to put food on the table.

Rop explained how the lack of employment opportunities forced him to wake up at 4 am so that he could land a spot at the quarry and break enough stone to meet the expected daily quota. By noon the quarry, located in Tendwet village, will already be filled with many youths armed with their mallets, hammering away at the large blocks of stones.

Once the ballast is ready, buyers will drive in late in the afternoon with their huge trucks and make their selection. It takes Rop nearly a day to produce the required amount of ballast to warrant the US$1.

“My parents had already spent a lot of money and resorted to selling some of their property just to put me through university with the expectation that I would land a decent job and be able to take care of myself later in life,” Rop said. “It is now five years since I graduated and I still rely on my parents, which is quite embarrassing.”

He said that working at the quarry was the only available option to earn extra money to meet his needs. “At least I don’t have to rely on everything from my parents.”

Rop added that he had been working at the quarry for a year and he intended to save up enough money to enable him to open a small electronics repair shop that can finally help make him independent.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, youth unemployment appears to have increased, forcing qualified professionals to resort to odd jobs for a living.

Doing whatever it takes

Dennis Orio, who was lucky enough to finally land a short-term contract at the Kenya Airports Authority’s (KAA) Wildlife Control Department, remembers how he worked at a construction site for almost a year, leaving him with back problems that still bother him.

“I had to carry blocks of stone, bags of cement and sand on my back every day for almost a year until the building was complete. I used to cough a lot. I did that for only US$3 a day,” Orio told University World News.

Orio, who has a degree in environmental science, is thankful for the contract at KAA. He is praying that the pandemic will come to an end so that things can go back to normal, and he might get a permanent position.

A 2020 World Bank report, Kenya Economic Update, indicates how unemployment in Kenya has increased, with many people earning less than US$1.90 per day.

Employment opportunities in the formal sector drastically fell in 2020, with many companies opting to lay off most of their workers to stay afloat.

“In previous years, things were a bit better at the quarry and one could earn up to US$4 per day,” Rop said. “However, since the pandemic started, ballast buyers have dwindled. We now have to make do with the U$1 that the few buyers can offer us.”

On average, tuition for an engineering programme at the University of Nairobi runs between US$5,000 and US$9,000. If the economic situation does not change soon, it will take Rop forever to even come close to earning the money his parents spent on his school fees.

Wilson Odhiambo: PhD holders, young graduates, fight for survival – and jobs

First published by University World Press. Re-published here by permission
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