Skilled yet unqualified: trials of the fresh graduate
By Asrat Seyoum and Solomon Goshu
Skilled yet unqualified: trials of the fresh graduate

Skilled yet unqualified: trials of the fresh graduate

By Asrat Seyoum and Solomon Goshu

The college district of Addis Ababa, covering an expansive area located off King George and Algeria Streets, is home to the oldest and biggest higher learning institution in the country – Addis Ababa University (AAU).

The university's Social Science, Business and Economy, Technology and Natural Science faculties are all housed along the two streets. And, undoubtedly, this is the busiest time of the year around there. Graduates and their families swarm cafés and restaurants in the vicinity. The mood is that of a celebration with cameras flashing, gifts exchanging and cheers and laughter heard everywhere. Yes, it all about the young graduates. It is their time to make lasting memories and celebrate the closing of a chapter in their life as they move to the next one waiting for them just down the road. The irony of it all is that indeed an important chapter in the graduates' life awaits literally down the road opposite to the Natural Science Faculty. It is one of the well-known spots in the city where job seekers, including young graduates come to stare at the vacancy boards and read papers. This is where many come to hunt for jobs. And many succeed in doing so over the years while many others stand there for months, rain or sun, without much luck. 

What is now an exclusive location for job hunters around town was once part of Jolly Bar, a popular café around the 1960s. During its days, Jolly Bar was a hangout for some of the intellectual minds of Ethiopia. Popular columns like “The view from Arat Kilo” by the late Gedamu Abreha in the then Addis Reporter was conceived in Jolly Bar. In fact, over the course of the past 50 years, the entire AAU district was regarded as a place where ideas and thoughts with power to shape Ethiopia's destiny originated. Jolly also occupies a respectable place among the former students of AAU. It was a platform of discussion where the most modern and revolutionary ideas of the time were dissected and debated. Now, Jolly itself has transformed into an upscale bar/lounge frequented almost exclusively by the socialites and well-endowed section of the population. 

Nevertheless, by day, the area still serves job hunters and all the agony of a job search. The mood among the job hunters is the complete opposite of the jubilating fresh graduates a few meters up the streets. The anger and frustration is quite evident on the faces of many. Getnet Befikadu and Wubalem Keneni spend much of their days around there. Wubalem, a graduate of Arba Minch University in Applied Chemistry, suffered the most during the past ten months. Every day, she had to make the trip from Enchini, a town 80kms away from Addis Ababa, to Arat kilo to check if something fitting was out there job wise. Transportation alone costs 50 birr a day, Wubalem told The Reporter. And, everyday, I had to come read the vacancies and scan the board thoroughly for zero experience jobs.

“At the beginning I was really hopeful to score a job at a certain factory where I could apply my training and knowledge,” she says. But, she soon realized that things are not easy for a fresh graduate like herself. “I have went on various interviews and set for exams,” she remembers, but nothing materialized. After a relentless search for ten months, Wubalem has secured a position as an assistant teacher at the School of Americana two months ago. “After a while I just stopped looking for the job I wanted and started to look for anything I can do with my zero years of experience,” she said. Nevertheless, Wubalem is still around Jolly Bar looking for more fitting openings. 

Getnet Befikadu and his friends on the other hand are this year’s graduates. With most of the jobs requiring experience, their anxiety is already running wild. Getnet graduated from Adama University in Software Engineering and he thinks his training has equipped him to work in any company. After five years of intensive study, he came straight to Addis Ababa with his friends to look for a job. From his two-week job hunt, Getnet is now realizing that this is not going to be easy. Both Wubalem and Getnet agree that employment with no prior work experience is hard in Ethiopia. Although over all urban unemployment is a challenge that is haunting policymakers in Ethiopia and others in the regions, the plight of fresh graduates is often overlooked in the Ethiopian labor market. And, the fact of the matter is the number of job openings requiring no prior work experience is getting dangerously low in recent times. 

Hilina Legese, On-line Services manager for Info Minds Solution, owner of Ethiojobs, the first online recruitment services provider in Ethiopia, holds that zero experience jobs are very hard to come by. In fact, from her company's overall clientèle, only 5 percent post vacancies with zero years of experience. “Until now, fresh graduates were never our target group.  And, this is among feedbacks we are getting at the moment,” she told The Reporter. Indeed, vacancies needing no work experience are very rare in Ethiopia.

Though not specific on the issue of fresh graduates, the position of the Ethiopian government on employment has always been clear. That is, the education system should not be about supplying labor to the labor market but about producing those who can create the employment. To that end, development of micro and small enterprises and nurturing entrepreneurial skills has been the primary policy direction of the government to address the issue of urban unemployment. In tune with this, the overall higher education system was also geared to focus on more natural science and technology streams in recent years; 70 Natural Science against 30 percent Social Science to be exact. This year alone, a fresh batch of 85,000 students left the 31 public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs), out of which Getnet and friends are only a few. What is alarming now is that he and his friends have to compete for whatever job opening the market offers along with the graduates of last and the year before. 

On the one hand, the number of HEIs in Ethiopia (31 public and 91 private) and that of the graduates has risen unprecedentedly in the past few years. According to the official figures, the number of graduates from the public HEIs also rose dramatically in recent years. For instance, from 33,740 in 2008/09 the figure leaped to 70,547 in just one year. Furthermore, number of graduates increased from 53,063 in 2011/12 to 67,595 in 2012/13 and 85,000 this year. However, the boom has to be met with an adequate supply of jobs in the labor market. One group of experts point their finger at this temporary supply-demand imbalance for the difficulties fresh grads are facing in Ethiopia. 

Samuel Kidane (Ph.D.), Director of Higher Education Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education (MoE), recognizes the problem. But, he is of the opinion that it is a problem of a short-term nature. “No country in the world provides jobs that absorb all fresh graduates from universities, that is why universities teach students to create jobs,” he argues.           

The bias      

Human resource experts that The Reporter approached, however, are more concerned about what they say is an emerging trend in the Ethiopian labor market – bias against fresh college graduates. According to Esayas Woldu, managing consultant of, an online job board/recruitment site, employers are increasingly drawn to discriminating against fresh grads. “At times, even for the most clerical jobs, employers prefer to hire someone with two or three years of work experience,” he explains. Furthermore, he admits that most of the jobs do not require the actual work experience that is demanded by employers. An important question here is 'why?'

The majority of the employers complain about the quality of the graduate employees. They say that college training in Ethiopia does not prepare student adequately for the work life they are about to embark on. According to Esayas, employers’ complaint is about the graduates ability to apply their basic training. First and foremost, it is the technical ability that is in question and whether they have what it takes to practice what they have been taught. Yet again, a big deficit in the soft skills such as communication, presenting and selling one’s self also contribute to graduate's un-employability. Helina emphasizes on the soft skill side and says that some of new grads seriously lack the skills to sell their technical ability.

The linkage

To be fair, the issue of graduate employability is not unique to the case of Ethiopia. Recent debates on higher education indicate that HEI are now under pressure to deliver on employability. Recent research work on the subject matter reveals this growing pressure on the HEIs. Experts on one side are of the view that education should be demand driven. Asnake Talargae on his research work entitled 'Prospects and Challenges of the GTP for Addressing Graduates Unemployment in Ethiopian Urban Labor Market' discusses why higher education should be highly demand driven. He argues that even the overarching 70/30 policy framework could not guarantee graduates employment since his sample study indicated a higher rate of unemployment in all social and natural science streams. Asnake argues that HEI-industry linkage is what is lacking in Ethiopia. The ultimate absorbers of labor force, industries, should have a say in the training programs of the HEIs in Ethiopia, the research argues. Samuel nevertheless says that now employers are intensifying involvement in HEIs by taking part in the design and revision of their basic curriculum.    

Linkage is also one of the outstanding issues in HEIs policy around the world. A couple of issues surface here. One is, to what extent should HEIs accommodate the requirements of employers? And, how far should industries and employers dictate the curriculum of HEIs? This could be quite controversial at times. Although neither the HEIs nor the employers question the ideal of higher education responding to the needs of the market, determining how far could be a real difficulty. On one side, HEIs do have their mandate to work for the pursuit of knowledge and intellect. This special mandate is protected by a special right to be free (academic freedom.) Hence, over imposition on the HEIs in favor of responsiveness to the need of the market could be an infringement to their right to teach and disseminate knowledge freely. According to researches, the whole thing could be tied to the necessary funding needed to effect market driven training. 

This is a question of carrying the burden. If HEIs were to perform market driven trainings, it would get easier for employers to hire fresh grads with out the extra cost of training. If not, the option is either to pay the HEIs to do that or adopt a training program on a firm level. This is a kind of day-to-day decision that an employer faces regarding fresh grads in this country, experts maintain. As far as Essayas is concerned the economic/cost implication of committing to hire fresh grads is highly exaggerated in Ethiopia. He says at times employers decide to hire experienced employees at higher salary obligations instead of training and molding youngsters. “The cost implication of adopting a training program both in terms of time and money is not that much compared to the higher salary/wage experienced workers demand to be paid,” he says. Citing his own experience in hospitality business, Essayas says that whatever is spent on a fresh grad is fully recoverable in gains in productivity. Yosef Haile, head of HR development at the Bahir Dar Textile SC, shares his sentiment. According to his experience, training from ground up has long-term advantages for employers. In fact, we have employees who are now at the level of department heads but started in companies as graduate trainees. Helina on her part observes that the international organizations invested in Ethiopia actually prefer to recruit and train their own staff. Now, most of them go directly to HEIs and recruit prospect employees. So far, many have been successful this way.          

Still, not all members of the HEI community accept the notion of responsive skill training in tertiary level of education. Many go as far as saying it is completely the responsibility of the companies themselves to train and shape the employees as they see fit. HEIs should not be forced to do that for them. Mulu Nega (Ph.D.), lecturer at AAU, says that part of the labor force who can access jobs as a fresh grads in Ethiopia are in fact quite famous. He says that in most parts of the world graduation does not mean anything; it certainly does not guarantee work immediately. Fresh grads still have to be training to fit any single job, and that training is the responsibility of the employer and no one else. 

Meanwhile, with employers not wiling to bear the cost of training and take risk in the fresh grads, the like of Wubalem and Getnet remain out there with no takers. The saddest story is the very fact that fresh grads are losing their freshness without working a single day in their lives.

Ed.'s Note: Mihiret Aschalew and Tibebesilassie Tigabu of The Reporter have contributed to this report.

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