Scarce Employment Opportunities in Uganda Dissuade Dissatisfied Workers From Quitting


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Part II: Education and Unemployment in Uganda

KAMPALA, UGANDA – After 17 years of schooling, Danson Baingana, 32, graduated with a bachelor’s degree in commerce from Makerere University in 2005. He says he was full of enthusiasm and hope that at last he was going to become financially independent.

“I was so happy that I had finally finished school after 17 years of schooling,” he says.

He was eager to pay back his aunt, who had paid for his school fees.

“My auntie Jonah Musinguzi who paid my school fees was also happy,” she says. “I very much wanted to get a good job and reward her.”

But his hopes began to dwindle after submitting many applications and not receiving a single interview. He says he could not find any work for three years.

This led to embarassment in his village in western Uganda. He says the local residents shunned him for receiving an expensive education yet not having a job to show for it. He stopped going home for Christmas and other holidays because he says he could not stand the rumors, silent snubs and cold stares from his fellow villagers.

“I stopped going to my village in Rwampara,” he says. “The villagers back bite me and look at me as someone who has failed to get employment despite all the money that was spent on me to pay my school fees.”

Baingana currently lives in Kampala, Uganda’s capital, but still has not been able to find a full-time job. Three years after graduation, he started finding work on a contract basis, which is how he has been earning a living. He has mainly found work as a research assistant on various research projects.

Despite the lack of employment opportunities, he believes that one day he will get a full-time job that will be worth the wait.

“I have not totally lost hope,” he says. “I hope to get a job that is worth the time I have waited.”

Baingana’s plight is not unique. Many other graduates in Uganda say they struggle to find employment as well.

Many Ugandans with higher education degrees say that they haven’t been able to find long-term work or any work at all. Despite the poor employment situation, some Ugandans are abandoning jobs they can’t tolerate. But most say they put up with unsatisfactory pay or working conditions because it’s better than joining the ranks of the unemployed. The government has been developing projects to boost employment here, but officials admit that more needs to be done on short- and long-term bases to alleviate unemployment and underemployment nationwide.

Unemployment was 1.9 percent and underemployment was 12.1 percent in Uganda as of 2005-2006, according to the latest statistics from the Uganda Bureau of Statistics.

But current statistics available in Uganda do not reflect the actual level of unemployment in Uganda, says Opio Dauglas, a policy and research officer at the Federation of Uganda Employers, the national apex body of employers. Dauglas attributes this to the definition used to define an unemployed person as one who does not work at all. One who works even one day a week is considered employed, even though this doesn’t garner sufficient income to support oneself.

Charles Musooli, 32, completed a diploma course in information technology at Kyambogo University four years ago. He says he still hasn’t found a job, not even a short-term contract.

He has tried to join security agencies that provide security services abroad. But he can’t afford the required travel and initial living expenses, which exceed 3.7 million shillings.

“Since I left school, I have never got anything to do,” he says. “I have tried to join security agencies that take Ugandans to provide security in war-torn areas like Afghanistan, but they ask for about $1,500. I have even tried to borrow money, but I have not been successful.”

He lives with his father in Kampala. He says he does not know how he would survive otherwise because he can’t afford his own place.

Despite the fact that many Ugandans struggle to find jobs after graduating from higher education programs, some say they have been compelled to leave jobs for various reasons.

Joshua Ssali, 37, who holds a bachelor’s degree in social sciences and a Master of Science in business adminstration, says he recently walked out on his job as an accountant with the Uganda Commercial Court because of personal conflicts with his boss.

“I left my job,” he says. “I was working as an accountant with the commercial court for four years, but I felt the conditions were unbearable. I was often conflicting with my boss.”

Ssali also says that his salary did not motivate him to keep his job, which he calls ungainful employment. He earned 400,000 shillings ($160) a month. But he intimates that this money wouldn’t last more than a week.

Ssali had an alternative before he chose to quit, though. 

“I have always had a business in money lending, which made me more money than my formal job,” he says. “I left the job because I know I can survive without it.”

But most Ugandans don’t have these alternatives to fall back on, despite strong desires to quit.

Tina Kasya, 34, holds a master’s degree in public health and has been working as a chief executive officer at a women’s rights organization for two years. She has been considering leaving her job because the organizational values are not in line with her personal values.

“When I was 2 months old in the organization, I learnt that the organization was promoting lesbianism and other gay activities, and I am born-again,” she says, adding that homosexuality does not align with her religious beliefs.

She says there have been other ethical conflicts that make her want to quit.

“I also witnessed several forgeries, and I was expected to endorse them,” she says. “When I refused, that brought a lot of conflict between me and the board members and other staff members that I felt that was not the best place for me stay.”

But unlike Ssali, she does not have a business on the side to fall back on.

Aside from personal or ethical conflicts, many of those who are employed are underpaid, Dauglas says. On average, many recent graduates are employed in the customer service industry and earn about 500,000 shillings ($200) a month.

Still, Dauglas says that, overall, it is rare for people to walk out on employment in Uganda. This is largely because there are many unemployed graduates. Employees would rather tolerate unsatisfactory working conditions than join the jobless.

“Many Ugandans find it hard to leave jobs – even when they are underpaid – because they are desperate,” he says. “They know it is hard to get employment. The situation is [pathetic]. Even those who are underpaid find it hard to leave jobs.”

Generally, people who studied applied sciences or underwent vocational or technical training have better odds when seeking employment than those who studied humanities at universities, he says.

“Those who did humanities are more susceptible to unemployment as opposed to those who did applied sciences,” he says. “Some of those who did applied sciences or vocational education are even in position to employ themselves given the nature of their work.”

Ugandans with primary school education made up more than 60 percent of the national labor force in 2005-2006, according to the Uganda Bureau of Statistics' latest data. Meanwhile, those with secondary school education accounted for nearly 18 percent, no education for about 14 percent and higher education for less than 6 percent.

Maria Kiwanuka, minister of finance, planning and economic development, said last month while presenting the budget strategy for the 2012-2013 financial year that the high number of unemployed graduates was a clear indication that the education system was not equipping students with the critical skills required to create employment and job opportunities.

She added that the unemployment challenge called on the government to provide effective strategies to create the hundreds of thousands of new jobs that Ugandans need. This requires a combination of initiatives that entail direct state involvement, private sector partnerships and the mobilization of civil society to be proactive. Short- and long-term measures must improve the employability of young people by increasing the demand for labor, enhancing education and skills and intervening in the labor market.

The government has recently partnered with several banks to establish the Youth Venture Capital Fund, 25 billion shillings ($10 million) allocated to support the growth of viable and sustainable small and medium enterprises by youth in the private sector.