Why Most African Graduates Earn Less than $150 5 years After School

According to a 2018 survey of employed graduates in Nigeria, about 60% of the respondent earned less than N50,000 per month – equivalent to $138. In today’s exchange rate, that will be $113 per month. Only 1.92 percent – that is like 2 in 100 graduates – earn above $400 per month.

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Yes, labour is cheap in most countries in Africa, but $150 is still a small amount to live on, especially after years out of school, with increasing responsibilities. And this figure will be a lot less in lesser developed regions. We can attribute the reason for this outcome to lack of job opportunities, poor infrastructure, and all the external factors. But there is more to it. The truth is that 5 years from now, the majority of young graduates will still earn a low income. But you can decide not to be one of them.

In this post, I’m going to share with you, why most African graduates earn less than $150 per year even after five years out of school and how you can choose a different path for a more rewarding outcome…

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School to Market Skill Mismatch

Strive Masiyiwa, founder of Econet Wireless, told the story of returning to his grandmother’s village for the first time after 20 years as a graduate of electrical engineering. He found that nothing had changed. It was still the same poor community with thatched roofs and no electricity. He was probably expecting her to celebrate the prospect of her grandson now ready to work for the best companies. But his grandmother told him to give her electricity since he claimed he was an electrical engineer.

She wasn’t seeing a graduate who was ready to feed on the society but one who is ready to solve her real problem. But instead of creating problem-solvers, our education system is creating entitled adults with no actual skill applicable to the real world.

How many computer science students can write codes to solve the basic problem? It should bother you to know that majority of computer science students cannot write functional programming language nor contribute to a software project after 5 years in school. This also applies to other fields; graduates simply lack the fundamental, practical skills to apply what they study in a school in the real world.

I studied petroleum engineering. And for the 5 years of study, we only got to actually visit an oil rig once. Yes, we had 3 months industrial attachment in the second year, and 6 months in the fourth year. But there was no collaborative method for schools to integrate students into industries. So we had students either attaching to companies or departments that are not relevant to their course of study or that couldn’t find a company to attach with.

The result is that we end up with a bunch of graduates who have spent 4 to 5 years studying what they cannot apply in the real world. While graduates complain of lack of job opportunities, employers complain about the lack of skilled workers. I believe this to be the number one reason why graduates cannot command high pay in the market place when I look at it both as a graduate and an employer of labour.

The Purpose of Education

The Eastern part of Nigeria was able to lift themselves out of poverty in one generation through the apprenticeship system. This was how it worked. A thriving businessman needs more hands to run his business. He picks a teenage boy from a poor family to ‘serve’ him for 5 to 6 years. During this period the young lad learns everything about his boss’ business. After 6 years of active service, the boss settles him with seed capital to go start his own business. This young man from a poor family, with the education and skill from his boss, goes on to build a successful business, lift his family out of poverty and takes other people’s sons to serve him. With this simple method, the Igbo communities were able to move from poverty to a tribe associated with wealth in less than 4o years.

Compare this with young people going to learn under lecturers for 5 years, getting settled with a certificate and pushed into the world with no real skill to become self-reliant. Our school system has significantly failed to prepare young people with the right education to be independent. These young people develop a sense of entitlement for having a piece of paper. They sit back and expect the system to provide for them. When the system fails, they resort to blaming external forces for not giving them an opportunity.

Cramming a bunch of information from a book is not education and it doesn’t make you an intelligent human being. Intelligence is multifaceted. There is emotional intelligence, there is naturalist, musical, logical-mathematical, linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence among others. Being good with exams only proves one of many forms of intelligence.

Don’t make the mistake to think this problem with formal education is peculiar to your country or to Africa. In the United States, Peter Schiff, a businessman and advocate for capitalism, interviewed a bunch of workers at a strip club to find out how many of them had a college degree. Every one of them responded to have a college degree with huge college debt. Yet they ended up working as security guards and bartenders at a strip club. So this is not just an Africa problem.

Lack of Financial and Economic Education

From basic knowledge of the law of demand and supply, the more people have what you have, the less value it becomes. If higher institutions are pushing out millions of young people with similar knowledge, the market gets a lot of options to choose from. When graduates are complaining that jobs are scarce, employers are complaining that skilled workers are scarce. This makes many of these graduates easily replaceable. And when you are easily replaceable, you have little power to how much you can earn. It’s common sense. If there are 1,000 people that can do what you can do, the way you can do it, you are just mass production. Cars that are produced in hundreds of thousands of units per year are often cheaper than ones that are produced a few hundred per year. This is why it is dangerous to rely on your academic qualification as your only means to demonstrate your value. Academic education is like money. If you don’t put it to use and keep growing it, it loses value.

On the other hand, basic financial wisdom tells you that what puts money in your pocket directly or indirectly is an asset and what takes it away is liability? And there is no greater liability than ignorance.

A Sense of Entitlement

One of the most important decisions you can make as a young person is to decide to take responsibility for your life. But when you bring a bunch of young people together within the four walls of a higher institution and make them feel like they are actually learning something useful, you end up creating a bunch of entitled people. People who feel the world owe them for going to school.

Let’s really think about it. What is the essence of education if we cannot solve at least the problem of how to survive in the real world? So yes, the education we get in our schools does not prepare the majority of graduates in the real world. What then are you going to do about it? You and I can do very little to change the education system, but we can learn to survive and ultimately thrive in spite of it.

Take Responsibility for Your Education

I think there is a fundamental misinterpretation of the word “Graduate”. We think of graduation as moving from a student to someone that has grasped knowledge in a field. But in reality, you never really graduate. You are ever a student in your field. You have to keep learning.

The last time most people read a book was to write a test or exam. You cannot fully rely on what you learn in a formal education setting to succeed in the real world. You have to be a student of life.

If we were living in the early 1990s, it may be understandable why people cannot do something about their situation. Access to knowledge and information was limited. At that time, if you wanted to develop knowledge about anything worthwhile, you had to go to the library and read books or enrol in a formal learning institute and take a course.

Today all of that has changed. You don’t have to be studying computer science in school to learn practical computer science skills. Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk all taught themselves to code. If you look around you, you will find many young people doing amazing things today in their professions and in business purely from what they learned through informal education.

As a journalist or mass communication student, you can teach yourself how to use digital media to commercialize your craft. As an electrical engineering student, you can learn about drone technology or solar technology and provide a solution to the market.

The truth is that 5 years from now, the majority of young graduates will continue to earn a low income. But you don’t have to be one of them. The first step is to take responsibility for your education and not leave it in the hands of formal institutions. Become curious for knowledge. Use the tools available today on the internet and offline to develop skills that people will want to pay more for. Develop yourself with a combination of competencies that it will be difficult to find someone with your combination of skill set. That is how you make yourself stand out in the job market. Take responsibility for your education and you will soon command higher pay in the local and international job market.