The Observer (Kampala)

Uganda: Getting Youth Off the Unemployment Trail

When Norbert Kafuuma a graduated with Bachelor of Arts degree from Makerere University in 2010, he only dreamt of a bright future--a decent job and of course a decent life.

He didn't anticipate a bumpy road ahead. Armed with a degree, Kafuuma thought that the task ahead -- finding a job -- was a simple one. Consequently, he hit the ground running in a frantic search for a job.

"I responded to several job adverts. I even reached an extent of applying for jobs below my qualifications, thinking that it would be easy to outcompete others but it didn't work," Kafuuma narrates.

However, all his job applications yielded nothing. The most he got was being shortlisted for interviews. "I sat for many interviews, but I don't know what used to happen after the interviews," he explains.

Three years after graduation, Kafuuma is still looking for a job, though his hope of getting one is gradually fading. Today, he even hates brown envelopes.

"They [brown envelopes] remind me of the money I have lost on job applications," he explains. Asked how he ekes a living without a job, he replies: "I survive like a man."

Just like Kafuuma, Michael Asiimwe also looked for a job that was in line with his education but in vain. "It is not easy to get a job in Uganda today," Asiimwe, a graduate of Development Studies, confesses.

He later gave up the search, and ventured into farming and petty trade, where he has found a fortune. Kafuuma and Asiimwe represent part of the growing unemployment problem in Uganda, where the young but educated youth can't find a job.

According to an International Labour Organization (ILO) 1982 resolution, unemployment is a situation where a person is without work, though he/she is available for work or actively seeking for a job.

Social womb

A World Bank report, "Uganda: Promoting Inclusive Growth" released in February 2012, reveals that unemployment remains a key obstacle to the country's growth. Job creation, the report notes, will become an even greater social and demographic challenge as more than 400,000 youth enter the labour market annually but can't all be absorbed.

"Unemployment and underemployment could become social bombs especially in urban centres where inequalities are more visible," the report warns.

The report notes that Uganda has the youngest population in the world and also one of the highest youth unemployment rates. Unless the country scales up her efforts to create jobs, the report warns that the youth could be more involved in crime and armed conflicts.

During the golden jubilee independence anniversary at Kololo, President Museveni acknowledged that the soaring number of university graduates, initially considered an asset, would remain an urgent challenge given the available jobs. "The problem is now jobs for the schools and university graduates," Museveni told his audience.

Job deficit

The Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2009 estimated that 83% of youth are unemployed. Uganda's universities and tertiary institutions, UBOS notes, churn out an estimated 400,000 graduates annually out of which only 90,000 youth can be absorbed in the labour market annually, creating a deficit of 310,000 jobs.

"People are losing interest in education. We spend a lot of money in tuition and yet there are no jobs" Kafuuma explains with rage.

'Walk for jobs'

Evelyn Anite, Youth MP for Northern Uganda, acknowledges that the days when graduation meant a job are gone. "Youth unemployment is a very big problem," she says, asking government to design strategies to create jobs.

Due to the magnitude of the problem, unemployed youth under their umbrella Uganda Unemployed Forum (UUF), last year stormed Parliament in an attempt to press government to take appropriate actions that can address unemployment.

They turned up in their graduation gowns to express their disgust at the appalling rate of unemployment and later held a peaceful protest dubbed "Walk for jobs", before handing over their memorandum to the speaker of parliament.

Blame game

Kafuuma attributes the high unemployment rate to the current education curriculum which he says is more theoretical than practical.

"When you study engineering at university, you come out as an engineer; but when you study Arts in Arts, what do you become, what can you do?" he wonders, before stressing that majority of unemployed youth studied such arts courses at university.

By his own admission, he thinks that he is unemployed because he studied what he described as 'a useless course'. He explains that some of his colleagues, who studied practical science-based courses, have jobs. Instead of creating new arts-based courses, Kafuuma believes that universities should focus on science-based practical courses that correspond with the labour market.

Junior Youth Minister Ronald Kibuule agrees with Kafuuma.

"Our education produces people who can't fit in the labour market," Kibuule says. He argues that whereas there are many arts students who end up unemployed, it is difficult to find an engineer or doctor, for instance, unemployed.

Besides the education curriculum, Kibuule says the economy is still too small to absorb all the unemployed youth. Lydia Bwiite, a legal assistant with Platform for Labour Action (NGO), views the education system as an elitist traditional education that produces job seekers and not job creators. She cautions that youth should stop dreaming of 'white-collar jobs' and unchain their potential in anything that can make them earn a living.

"Blue-collar job is the way to go," she stressed.

However, despite the soaring unemployment; some professions like those in the health sector are experiencing a shortage of health workers. With a high unemployment rate, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to alleviate poverty and inequality in Uganda over the long term. Bwiite says poverty breeds powerlessness and an inability to plan or dream beyond daily struggles of survival.

Ray of hope

The UUF has asked government to review its investment policy and tag employing Ugandans to the provision of licences. UUF members argue that countries like Egypt, Malaysia and Cuba have effective policies on employment, which follow this formula.

For instance, in Egypt, a foreign investor must ensure that they will employ six locals before getting a licence, while in Cuba an investor has to employ nine nationals, with Malaysia requiring 10 nationals.

"This means that if 100,000 investors employ an average of 10 nationals, this would result into a million jobs. Why can't we do the same here?" UUF members wrote in their petition to parliament last year.

Kibuule concurs with the youth, stressing that government is putting in place similar measures to address the unemployment problem in the country.

"The ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development is drafting an employment policy that will compel foreign companies to employ Ugandans as long as they [Ugandans] have the required skills and experience," Kibuule says.

He adds that the government is reviewing the Youth Venture Capital Fund to enable more youth start their own businesses and employ others. This, Kibuule believes, will empower the youth become job creators, not seekers. Kibuule also wants government to review the education curriculum and place more emphasis on practical skills like vocational training. Education Minister Jessica Alupo has already bought into this.

"We are emphasising 'Skilling' Uganda so that not all youth should rush to universities to get any degree. Instead they can join vocational institutions and acquire practical skills that are needed in the market," Alupo said at the recent graduation ceremony at Uganda Technical College Kichwamba.

Under the NRM 2011-2016 election manifesto, the NRM government has indicated that it will reduce the cost of doing business through investment in infrastructure like roads and power so as to attract investors, hence creating more jobs.

This Observer feature is published in partnership with Panos Eastern Africa, with funding from the European Union's Media For Democratic Governance and Accountability Project.

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