#PerceptionVsReality THE PLIGHT OF TOP KENYAN UNIVERSITY GRADUATES

Yesterday, I met two old friends. One is a lawyer and the other an engineer. We all graduated the same year. Luckily, they were immediately hired by reputable companies based in Nairobi. They wore fancy suits, had expensive phones and from Facebook images, they seemed to be doing very well. Naturally, I assumed they were swimming in money.

After the pleasantries, we had an honest conversation. I was shocked to learn that both were earning a gross salary of Ksh 25,000, psychologically abused by their bosses and overworked. How is that even possible?

When you graduate top in your class and get hired by a renowned company everyone assumes you are making lots of money hence place high expectations on you, worst of all if you pursued a prestigious course. What they don’t know is behind that fancy degree, nice suit and swanky office is a tortured soul battling depression while trying to reconcile perceived social standing and an empty bank account.

This is my story.

Every time I tell someone that I’m a trained civil engineer they are shocked. They quickly do mental calculations on the time, sheer hard work and tuition spent on my education only for me to drop it for blogging. It makes absolutely no sense! They check me out from head to toe for clues. When their eyes settle on my rugged hair, a knowing smile form on their lips. Aha, he is on drugs!

The very first time I interacted with an engineer was during a career fair back in high school. He had a bushy beard, thick spectacles and an air of arrogance often associated with intellectuals back then. I was so taken by his brilliance as he explained the various disciplines and career options. That very moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life.

Fueled by ambition I camped at the library in a bid to understand the infamous salts and mole concept. Chemistry was my Achilles heel yet it was essential for the career I hoped to pursue. My entire family was ecstatic when I did well in KSCE and was admitted to the University to study engineering.

My alma mater just like any other public university has two major divisions. The government-sponsored students who feel are smarter than the self-sponsored who in turn think of their counterparts as poor and conservative. The other division is between those taking courses like medicine, law, pharmacy and engineering, and the guys pursuing BA, education or business-related courses.

Walking on campus with a humongous book on Engineering Mathematics in one hand and a wooden T-square in the other was enough to attract the attention of elusive campus beauties.

Nobody in my class would miss classes like probability and statistics. Since my class had only five ladies, who felt more like brothers in dresses, this is the only time we got to share a hall with several females from other departments hence higher chances of getting a girlfriend.

The trick was to go to the lecture hall a few minutes earlier. Sit next to a chatty group of ladies, whip out a book and start scribbling complex equations. Solve the same question using three different methods without paying attention to your beautiful neighbors.

From the corner of the eye, you would see the ladies elbowing one another or talking in hush tones while pointing at you. Moments later, the leader of the pack who is often the prettiest would tap your shoulder before unleashing a dazzling smile

“Sasa!”

“Uhm poa.”

“What topic is that?”

“Laplace transformations.”

“Lap what? How comes our lecturer hasn’t taught us?”

“Nah, this some assignment for a different course.”

Silence.

“Are you an engineer?”

“How did you know?” Feigning surprise.

“I knew it! You guys are so complicated,” she says while giggling.

You exchange numbers, meet up after classes.

A week later she is introducing you to her girls as engineer Maish, her new boyfriend. The friends turn green with envy. Some make passes at you when she is not looking. In their minds, she has won a lottery. With such a dashing young man, she is set to have beautiful intelligent kids, make lots of money and fly across the world immediately after campus while the rest are still tarmacking.

After 3rd year I was required to go for industrial attachment. I spent two weeks visiting countless government offices and consultancy firms across the city. It was all the same story.

“Drop your CV at the secretary’s desk, we will call you soonest a vacancy is available.”

None of them ever called, I suspect they tossed my papers into the trash can the moment I stepped out. Exhausted, I landed in an engineering corporation located in the city center. Unable to sway me with promises, they brought in an extra desk and a letter directing that I start my internship the following Monday. Soon after, I got another internship spot at the county planning department.

Most engineering firms don’t pay interns. Some actually demand that you pay them some amount for equipping you with hands-on skills. I was so happy that I would walk in town with the intern’s badge hanging from my neck.

The two workplaces were completely different. My supervisor at the county offices was a shrewd chap. He would get to the office before official opening ours then leave at midday to check on his businesses. Since drawings for any infrastructural project must go through the department for approval before construction begins, there is rampant corruption as developers seek to hasten the process. He taught me how to survive in this industry and sometimes charge outrageous amounts for simple stuff.

The corporation had a more structured environment with all kinds of professionals ranging from accountants to architects. There were about ten engineers in my department. They were all brilliant and highly qualified. One time I chanced upon their pay slips. Boy, I was terribly disappointed.

First, their salaries weren’t competitive or anywhere close to what you imagine engineers make despite working for years. Secondly, although out there the society placed them on a pedestal they were struggling to maintain this image on a tight budget. Car loans and mortgage took a substantial amount of their monthly earnings.  To make it worse, all the biggest contracts have been taken by the Chinese hence fewer projects available. We would spend most afternoons on Facebook or engage in endless political debates.

As an intern, my main duties involved rushing to the supermarket over lunch time to get the freshest samosas, sausages, and bread. I was also sent on all money-related errands. My superiors were convinced that all Kikuyu’s are thieves. I guess they were applying the adage, set a thief to catch a thief.

I met one interesting plumber during a site visit. He would undertake at least five projects a month each earning him 50-100k in profit. That’s a cool half-million shilling for someone with little basic education yet an engineer would have to work for almost three decades to make half of that. Something didn’t feel right.

When we resumed our studies at the university, professors were more truthful about what awaited us out there. One lecturer after another expressed their regrets for choosing this career path. A highly-acclaimed transportation professor revealed how he regrets having studied engineering to PhD level, which meant there were fewer job opportunities for him. His peers who went into business after their first degree were minting millions and doing so much better than him in all other spheres of life while he was struggling to make ends meet. To add salt to the injury, the Bachelor of Arts guys he used to look down upon were now his bosses, earning more than he does and rubbing it in his face.

Courtesy: Prof Eli Reed

Certain I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life lamenting about how unfair life is like the older engineers, I began exploring my writing talent and investing little savings in potential business ideas.

Weeks before clearing university, I applied for management trainee positions in three multinational companies based in Nairobi, YALI East Africa and as a volunteer to some business incubation program.

Due to naivety, my young company ran out of business soon after campus. I was struggling to stay afloat and pick up the pieces. At the back of my mind, I had a fallback plan.

The following week I received rejection emails from all the firms I had applied to. My plan B went up in smoke. I was devastated. Who the hell gets rejected by five establishments in round one of the interviews? I wasn’t even good enough to become a volunteer.  The writing on the wall was clear. I was a failure. No future. All I could see was darkness.

I got a reprieve when I was invited to some water supply project in Kwale that needed an engineer. Finally, the gods were smiling down upon me. It was now my turn to excel. I imagined myself doing what I always dreamt of. Everything was falling into place. I was delighted. I went to meet the project manager with very high hopes.

Guess what I was offered? Ksh 400 bob a day to oversee the completion a Ksh 98 million contract working Sunday to Sunday. No allowance, no medical cover or any other form of compensation. To make it worse the main site was inaccessible by public transport so I would have to spend the entire amount on fuel.

Incensed, I drove off in a huff and headed to Shimba Hills National Reserve, which was close by. Two kilometers into the forest, the car got stuck. You know how useless 2WD cars are off-road. I was stuck all alone in the dense forest, without any network coverage to call for help. All the frustrations come back flooding. All I could think of is how useless I was. A big embarrassment. Ashamed of what I had turned out to be after all the sacrifice those around me had done. I broke down.

After crying for a while, I wiped away the tears and began digging out the tires with my bare hands. I pruned branches and placed them on the path and dug out the tires repeatedly throughout the treacherous half-kilometer road section. When I finally got to the other side, my hands were bleeding. I stopped at a makuti shed overlooking a group of elephants, took out a notebook and wrote The Kenya Middle-Class Nightmare.

The piece I wrote during my lowest point in life capture the world’s attention and opened so many doors catapulting me to a blogging career.

In retrospect, I learned not to take rejection personally, pick lessons from my failures and never to give up. If I was able to bounce back from rock bottom then no mountain is too big to summit.

Being a country that places a high value on education, lots of parents push their kids to ostensibly esteemed careers thinking they will change family fortunes upon graduation. Many other young people get into careers with unrealistic expectations on remuneration. This is intensified by the fact that those already in the field don’t truthfully reveal to the young fellas what awaits them so as to protect the respect accorded to them by society.

For the next couple of days, I will be running an online campaign dubbed #PerceptionVsReality, which seeks to unearth the truth behind various distinguished careers. Check out my Facebook page Mark Maish for real-life stories from other graduates. If you would like to take part in the initiative by telling your story kindly reach out to me via email markmaina76@gmail.com. All names will be withheld to protect identities.

That said, higher education is like modern football kit. It may give you a little advantage and enable you to play comfortably but it won’t make you win trophies. Sacrifice, hard work, talent, creativity, a touch of luck, street smarts and self-drive is what makes you achieve massive success in life. Academic papers or lack thereof should never stop you from becoming great.

Written By Mark Maish

54 Comments

Add Yours
  1. 3
    Phanis Obwaya

    Haha.. I see what you did there with Laplace transformations. . . I can’t help but wonder why they feed us with some ancient abstract knowledge which will not help solve third world problems.

  2. 4
    Warima

    Great read as always Maish, keep up!!!
    If only people knew the reality of the job market, they would stop fussing about degrees. Life outside campus shows that you are just another ordinary, struggling Kenyan. But it is never too late to start over.

  3. 5
    ATM

    I agree with most of the article but I would be very wary before bashing good education. I will start by making it clear that the major problem facing graduates is joblessness. This forces them to take up jobs that don’t suit them hence the poor pay and lack of development. The second one would be the fact that the young people aren’t working hard enough to grow professionally. If you study to be an engineer and want to work as an engineer, you must be an engineer. No one will employ “pseudo” engineer to run complex projects. You must keep adding to the knowledge gained at the university by practicing and studying more.

  4. 8
    Askher

    Great piece.i like this.it unveils the whole foolishness lying in the so call academic perception.
    graduates should see the sence in this.

    me nimeamka kwenda kuhustle…negotie rieuuu!!

  5. 11
    The poor elite

    Good piece. Graduates are mistreated in terms of remuneration!! Life after tertiary University is different from what it seems when “we” are schooling.

  6. 12
    disappointed kenyan

    nice article… ati “trying to reconcile perceived social standing and an empty bank account”. maisha ni mwalimu.

  7. 15
    Willi

    Mark, my engineering classmate. You have just reminded me of one of our lecturers in 5th year. He told us he had a first class honours in electrical engineering and how he regrets it. He has to always evade his former classmates who got a second class lower division but are driving range rovers while he drives a caldina, which is on loan.

    I like the details and can fully understand the feeling having gone through the same system.
    Even without undermining the essence of education, i think truth is better and I wish students can be told the real truth of what awaits them.

  8. 16
    Sammie

    Waaau…. If you don’t throw away your degree prepare to die poor but instead use the knowledge you got to connect…….

  9. 17
    Don

    Spoken like a true comrade! Relying only on your degree is murder! I can say av learnt more outside the lecture hall than inside! If I focussed more outside, I would be much better! All those SMA units….. It hurts that all the effort is fruitless! At least I have a paper to show my kids m learned! Hmm

  10. 21
    Chief Justice

    Its not over yet, Mark and friends read this as well from a lawyer https://hmatoke.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/elections-as-a-tuner-to-graduates

  11. 22
    Jeff

    Well put Mark. Reminds me of how I wasted one year shuttling between lecture halls, computer centre, the library and my single room in KM and ended up with nothing to show for it.

  12. 24
    Peter Nena

    This is a sad story. I am an electrical engineer, and it surprises me that you tarnish engineers like this. I have to remind you that engineers don’t build careers like the corporate men. Engineers run projects, small projects, massive projects, multimillion, multibillion-shilling projects. Engineers design and build out in the field. Engineers supervise projects throughout their run. A nice suit doesn’t mean shit to an engineer. A fancy car is shit, too. Engineers drive off-road vehicles.
    The skills you acquire practising engineering are so crucial that to waste them languishing for a ‘dream job’ is stupid. You acquire clients as you run projects. Your clients give you jobs. Engineers don’t go broke unless they are lazy.
    Man, you started on the wrong path and you cannot use that to discourage students from taking engineering courses.

  13. 25
    Allan Otini Omuka

    Spot on… But the problem all starts when we as Kenyans embrace mediocrity in terms of poor governance, corrupt civil service systems among many others… Corporates exploit the youth, government is too corrupt and the youth are now turning to other vices(legal and illegal) just to survive

  14. 26
    Nerd

    Software Engineers are the exception, well compensated if you went out of your way to learn how to develop systems(not taught in campus).

    • 31
      allan

      Most of these companies know that most graduates are at best ”average” and so they only reward what they can easily find in the job market. If anyone stands our at excellent, they will NEVER be frustrated by any company.
      Excellence might wait,but eventually it finds it’s worthy reward. The challenge is to get rid of the mediocrity in our educational institutions that produce so many average graduates.

  15. 32
    gilbert

    Such a sad reality. But i loved this bit “In retrospect, I learned not to take rejection personally, pick lessons from my failures and never to give up. If I was able to bounce back from rock bottom then no mountain is too big to summit.”

  16. 34
    Bryan

    The problem with most graduates is a feeling of self entitlement and unrealistic societal expectations.At the work place most young guys don’t have the discipline and perseverance required to succeed.As one wise man said “take up whatever comes your way;the job title doesn’t matter,getting your foot in the door does!”

  17. 37
    Mary njoki

    We hold the solution ourselves,,,,, you can imagine the millions of kenyans who qualify from the University from bombastic courses,,, look at this,,,, you want a job,,, I want a job,,, everyone does,,,, but we do not want to take the initiative,,,, very few jobs are created,,, let’s stop having fore pointing minds that doesn’t look aside for any extra option,,,, well said that we often Make strategies wen looking for work,,, perfect to make to,, but can’t we make a third one,,, self employment,, let’s create jobs,,, create job,, stop making calculated steps towards entrepreneurship,,, face it head on and create job security for many a

  18. 41
    Mollah

    This is why one Gary Vaynerchuk is my man crush for 2017. I’m sure there’s a video you can get on YouTube about him talking about not letting papers define you. Great post !!!

  19. 42
    Khayukhi Hussein Joseph

    That was a very nice article Mark about the murky waters of the job market. However it appears one-sided, and only shedding light on a section of engineers and lawyers going through hell in the job market. Now you better also write about the other side of the coin, comprising of engineers and lawyers who are earning six-digit figures a few years after graduating from college. Shed light on both sides of the story and let people learn from both sides of the story. Anyway nice article Mark.

  20. 44
    david kandie

    Nice one. Now there there is truth and a bit bias on this piece. The truth is that most graduates don’t either do market research properly or take prestigious courses solely to get rich quickly (Kinda like prosperity gospel peddled nowadays in our churches) and end up frustrated when they meet the harsh reality.

    The bias is the perception that you don’t need education to succeed in life. Education is important, the world won’t be where it is today where it not for education.

    If one fails in life it is as a result of poor choices made along the way. Complaining about poor pay does nothing. I would be more happy if someone told me that they are saving and investing wisely so that in a couple of years they would quit their job and go solo.

  21. 48
    allan

    Anyone who goes to university with the aim of getting a job has the reasoning of a cave man/woman. This economy does NOT reward education anymore….it rewards education that comes with talent, excellent people skills, innovation and flexibility.
    Most of these companies know that most graduates are at best ”average” and so they only reward what they can easily find in the job market. If anyone stands our at excellent, they will NEVER be frustrated by any company.
    Excellence might wait,but eventually it finds it’s worthy reward. The challenge is to get rid of the mediocrity in our educational institutions that produce so many average graduates.

  22. 49
    Prudence Lihabi

    heheh! especially hiyo part ya kubeba Tsquare the whole day then attacho unavaa helmet na overall and everyone is like ‘Engineer buy us lunch’ and you haven’t taken lunch yourself.
    For real self employment is the way to go.

  23. 53
    Anne Komen

    That’s your view on how white colar jobs go for engineers. I have the same view on how white colar jobs go for bankers. People always have this mindset that if you’re working in a bank you have lots of money. If only they knew how brutal life is…

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