Do you even Want to be Middle Class Anyway?

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I was strolling on YouTube when I came across an interesting video termed ‘The Birth of a New Underclass’. I thought this referred to some western concept but by the third minute it was clear it was talking about us – my generation, the millennials! You all know how good YouTube is at packaging related videos; I had barely watched the video quarter way before I saw videos that gave us an even more dramatic characterization – we described as ‘The Lost Generation’, ‘Generation Jobless’ among others.

This information was at odds with what I have always known and the narrative most of us subscribe to – That you move up the social ladder into the middle class not to an Underclass. Obviously this got me thinking; what is the middle class anyway, what would make someone like you or me one? What I read next was applicable at a personal level but also to the work I do in leading the UReady Employability Program.

Apparently, the term ‘middle class’ was first formally used by the French to describe a certain social group between peasants and nobility. There are many tags and labels used to identify one as a middle class in different societies but one stood out for me – the acquisition of a tertiary education. This specific label is of importance to me not just because I work with graduates but because the so called ‘new underclass’ describes this group of degree holders and terms their dream an illusion.

I have been privileged to share in the joys, challenges and hopes of the African graduate youth. I know going up the social ladder is important to us – after all education is pitched to us as ‘the key of life’. And, if the middle class is a person in a social hierarchy between working class and upper class then you know working/employment is a precondition to this rise. This is where the rain starts beating us!
Clearly, tertiary education has remained the unchallenged pathway to the middle class through opening up access to employment opportunities. However, if current data tells us anything is that university education is no longer a ticket to this coveted place.

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This sounds like a very negative outlook of things – if the middle class is becoming more and more of a mirage, what is left to hope for? Fortunately, there is what we can prepare our youths for called ‘The New Middle’. Thomas Friedman in his book ‘The World is Flat’ intimates that there is a new space in the social ladder that will be dominated by those able to create premium value in the new world of work. This is our commitment at UReady Employability Program – to train youths boasting not of their graduate degrees but demonstrating that they can combine knowledge from different areas to create new value. We are asking the so called ‘half baked’ graduates to ‘Ask Us About Employability’ i.e. Ask about about skills necessary to play in this new middle economy. Think of the result as- a mass communication student applying comedy to grow the employers viewership or also offering content development to companies for social media; an engineer combining design with retail sector merchandizing among others.

Could I be getting ahead of myself to even suggest that people should dismiss the middle class dream? I don’t think so, neither am I the first. The Huffington Post run an article declaring middle class ‘A Meaningless Term’. The writer gives two compelling reasons:
1). The idea of middle class has become divorced from income
2). The lifestyle we associate with being middle class is largely unachievable on a middle-class income nowadays”

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So if jobs remain scanty and the middle class is a concept of a bygone era – what does the new middle graduate skills, jibs and requirements look like? Nobody knows for sure but everyone knows it is a different space altogether. What we know is that getting work (I did not say a job because the concept of a job is itself changing) will still be critical. We can already hear new terms such as ‘gig economy’ that is associated with this new middle. The gig tell us that careers of the future will not be long paternalistic relationships with an employer but short term output based engagements. In the new middle a graduate will like work for multiple employers behaving as a freelancer; her CV will no longer have bullets of positions held with an employer but will look more like a portfolio of mini projects for different employers.

So what do our youths and graduates require to create value in a gig set up. Tons of passion, boats of flexibility and top notch people skills. Take accounting for instance, few are willing to pay an accounting graduate $350 plus statutory obligations but they can pay a non-committal freelance fee of $100 for a need-based monthly freelance arrangement. In this situation, the successful new middle graduate will be the one with people skills to build a network of 10 clients for whom they will file tax returns, data entry and be on call for this USD 100 retainer per month.

Think of it as a graduate who will no longer sell a simple product like a toothpaste but a complex ERP system by Microsoft. He will require a combination of technical and business knowledge; he has to both explain a complex product in simple terms to a non techie as well as convincingly show the business value of that purchase. Mind you he will mostly be selling it to high level decision makers so his communication, networking, problem solving and commercial awareness knowledge has to be on point.

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Complex ha! That is the new middle and it will handsomely reward those ready for it. We can help – Ask Us About Employability! Ask us about the skills that will matter most to you in this new middle and you do not have to worry about the middle class.

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From a Throne to a Loan

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Have you ever seen your dreams being stolen? Have you had to compete for unpaid work? Well, I have and I count you lucky if you haven’t. I have watched our young people being humiliated as they beg for a free unpaid internship. I have seen them rejected before their graduation is cake is even over. I have watched parents unseal envelops from the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) thinking its a job only to find its a threat!

Yes, threat to remind them that their daughter or son on whom their bright future hinges is not only jobless but also in debt. Yes, I have watched the lines of sadness on our mothers faces form at the cruel reality that this job market owes them nothing despite all they did; all they went without and all they sold and borrowed for their children to one day sit on some throne of success. And now it is no longer a game of thrones – its a Game of Loans.

A bottomless pit for some driven by higher education debt incurred to acquire a credential that no longer produces value in the market place capable of supporting repayment. Today, I want to share with you the story of graduate student debt that is cripling many at the beginning of their careers.

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What do you mean that you sense I am mad, of course, I sound mad, why would’nt I?
a). When we tell our graduates to become entrepreneuers since there are fewer jobs and some oblidge; but, even before their idea can come together they are listed in credit reference bureaus meaning they can never access the much needed business capital
b). When default rates on student loans are high and your solution is not to realize that the underlying asset based on which the loan was made is faulty and not necessarily the borrower.
c). When I see my brother becoming a serial intern and not a single employer wanting to compensate him even for bus fare – so basically I have to finance him to work for someone.
c). When I see a 16 year investment in a degree depreciate faster than the Japanese vehicles dumped on us.

Today, allow me to share my madness by highlighting what I believe has forced our precious resource (youths) into a game of loans with stark odds against them. I will explore three issues which I believe if left un addressed our higher education financing models will collapse and we can as well forget the Africa Rising narrative.

Lets explore each in turn:

1). High student debt/loan
In the case of Kenya, a university student admitted under government selection program graduates with an average of Ksh. 320,000/USD 3200 plus interest. Self sponsored students or those in parallel programs spend over USD 5000 – and yet these are modest lower end tuition fees for light arts programs and do not include cost of living, opportunity costs or interest rates. So why do parents or students themselves incur such costs? It is the belief is that education pays off. It is on this basis that students borrow directly or indirectly with the hope of paying with future returns. However, our graduates are not exactly off to a good start when they cannot land a first job but are often finding themselves in deep pit of student loan. It has turned to what many now believe to be a pointless debt – a lost gamble of dead end investment.

2). Serial Internships
This is a situation where most of our students and graduates have been turned into perpetual interns whom no one pays as if this is the only model employers know of. Worse still is how little these internships get them be it monetary or non-monetary value.

When we consider how effective the internship,  our prominent work force preparation method is in getting graduates ready for work and appealing to employers – then you are left with that feeling that I could be right. I hoped to be wrong because naturally an internship should be a soft entry into the professional world for a student leading to better incomes and ultimately loan repayment. Unlike popular thinking, an internship is hard to find and it is no longer a path to paid work. Ross Perlin in his book ‘Intern Nation’ terms what we are witnessing as ’employers who have chosen to view interns as a source of cheap and disposable labor; an very exploitative mindset instead of a helpful one that treats our students as a cost-free replacement of a paid worker’.

Despite his accurate sentiments, we are aware that this is an employers job market – the employer has most leverage if not all. Consequently, we see that there is competition for this unpaid work reinforcing the ‘Serial Internships’ phenomenon. While market supply justifies this from an employer perspective, it breaks down an implied social contract among businesses and the societies they operate within.

However, huge supply of graduates is not the only driver. There is a much central issue namely the structure of the internship itself. At UReadyAfrica we have noted that Kenya and many countries lack internship models – these are frameworks of structured engagement that would ensure that even if employers do not pay interns in monetary terms, there exists a framework through which some form of value accrues to the student. Ask 80% of employers today what is the documented value that has accrued to those students offering them free labor; ask them how they hold themselves accountable for such a promise. You will mostly hear meaningless buzzwords such as ‘we are providing you with work experience in a competitive space’. This nebulous state sees to it that graduates earn nothing and mostly learns nil and thus remain in the game of loans.

The last driver of serial internships is the growing situation where even these competitive unpaid internships reward well off students and punish those from poor backgrounds. Think of it this way, most opportunities are available in major country capitals whose rents, transport and food costs are high. Upon graduation, most students from poor backgrounds have to retreat to their villages since staying in town is beyond their means.

3). Depreciation of a graduate
Economist have begun to throw around the term ‘Education Inflation’ describe the emerging phenomenon where almost every young person you encounter has a post secondary qualification of some sort. This ensures a graduates is less likely to pay student debt on time. Why you ask? Well, because employers don’t want to hire them after graduation because upon graduating our youths logically have higher salary expectation and come with higher student debt.

In short, you are more valuable as a student and the day you graduate you change categories from student to unemployed. So do not let graduation ceremonies fool you, our youths depreciate overnight from celebrities to a sore nuisance in people’s offices, call logs and emails begging for unpaid work.

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Most of graduates had never taken any other form of credit save for that student loan they filled in ignorance and pure ecstasy of being admitted into a university. Of course they ought and should pay all their debts be it student loan or other forms of credit – but to label them as fundamental defaulters based on student loan is cruel. To make their first credit history a negative boarders on….Anyway, some would argue that you pushed this higher education dream down our thoughts after all so take some responsibility that it is not turning out like anything you promised. For me, I want to hear conversations around employment and student debt that acknowledges the fundamental challenge of the higher education credential; that admits this is a new job market and the few jobs available can barely feed someone let alone pay high monthly installments. Let us have better repayment structures not crazy approaches like inhibiting youths from marrying until they pay! I look forward to a society that acknowledges it promised a throne and now it is delivering a loan.

Why Great Companies are not Creating Jobs

PSX_20170403_140432Yes, we are in trouble, huge trouble. This is because the pools of job creation otherwise known as companies are drying up overnight. Why so? There is a new business model orchestrated by a marriage of globalization and technology explosion. Let me explain:

Globalization was seen as the silver bullet of the 20th century. Factors of production (labor, capital, and entrepreneurial instinct) could move to their most product spaces. The opportunity to create wealth was immense. And wealth was indeed created only in a few hands.
– What we did not foresee was that a departure from national to global value chains meant our governments would have lesser control on employment creation and even final destination of gains. This was not a bad thing had they seen the entire equation besides their silent acquiescence to multinational demands for cheaper labor.
So we have a situation where something is invented in India, designed in America, produced in China marketed from Europe – with the parent company registered in a tax haven where most value returns.
– The results have been an unprecedented skewed wealth accumulation by few players at the helm of the global value chains. This accumulation is driven by two culprits – multinational corporations (MNCs) and shrewd tech companies. This article is about me being opinionated about the two because I have seen first hand where their continued behavior and the inactivity of our governments will leave our youth – Africa’s most abundant resource.

If our governments relinquished control to the MNCs and tech companies (most of whom we celebrate) does it mean they are our savior? Maybe they are the future of jobs and decent livelihoods. Evidence suggests that these are great vehicles of wealth accumulation not social good. Consider the facts with me:
First, when we officiated a marriage between technology and globalized economies we also disrupted how these companies create and deliver value; whom they would collaborate with and also whom they fear (competition). The discomfort and risks associated with this landscape have seen most companies adopting a survival mode.
To a large extent, a sizable number of MNCs and well to do national companies have jumped into a cost-cutting frenzy that continually becomes intoxicating. It is increasingly becoming a matter of survival for boards and C-suite execs to post better figures per quarter than to stand for something or mean something socially. Our business segment is now punctuated by news of blatant layoffs cosmetically packaged as necessary cost cutting or the more trendy one of ‘going lean’. – so what is my fuss all about? Going lean means a disrupted livelihood, sometimes long-term unemployment – it is a very disempowering encounter. This is why I tell our awesome UReadyAfrica students that blue chip companies no longer create jobs, unlike popular opinion.

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I know what you are thinking, that some are truly justified and had no choice – true. However, the philosophy behind most layoffs lacks a human and social face. Let me emphasize this: There has never been a time when companies laid off so many people despite the fact that they were still profitable. Indeed, there has never been a time that we glorified quarter, mid or end of year results like today.

Secondly, I would like you to now consider the celebrated tech companies that led the disruption. Before their razor sharp PR campaigns and the appeals of their gadgets fool you ask yourself whether their business model is socially conscious. You will discover that most of these trendy tech celebrity companies are by no measure awesome job creators.They are machines of wealth creation for investors. Here are a few pointers:

a). Crazy valuations
Just imagine that Apple’s market value is bigger than all but 19 countries GDPs – note that most of the 19 countries either have oil, colonized someone or are extremely large. In fact, Saudi Arabia, world’s oil richest country is only $68 (the current valuation of Uber) billion richer than Apple. Which is fascinating since if Apple acquired Uber it would surpass oil fields and people of Saudi. Now think about how much jobs this company or its peers have created.

b). Growth without jobs.
If we leave Apple and look at its younger siblings such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Groupon you will be hit but equal crazy valuations that rise year to year. Sure, we were in awe of their growth – the story of Uber, Facebook, LinkedIn among others inspire us, they epitomize human ingenuity. Unfortunately, that is all, we do not see an upward spiral in job creation – they barely get an invitation to tag along. For decades it has been known that company expansion means job pool expansion until now.

c). Displacement and quality of jobs
I suspect that for every 10 jobs Uber, Facebook or Indian algorithms take they will mostly create fewer jobs of lower quality. They will also displace jobs from the base to another area. Uber, for instance, has led to joblessness of traditional taxi owners and drivers. While it appears great on efficiency and consumer experience the guys displaced were in taxi business for life i.e. unlike new Uber owners who are already middle-class folks trying to diversify and boost main revenue base, these guys may not survive the knocked out.

Now you want to scream at me, be gracious Ndirangu, be gracious. Okay…just so we are clear I too enjoy riding an Uber, the conveniences that technology affords us or advertising on Facebook. So this is not me making a case for inefficiency or status quo; this is me inviting us to see a bigger picture beyond that which fits in our frame as consumers. To acknowledge that there is a wider context here beyond efficiency. Indeed these tech companies can no longer play the non-conformist income being gagged by policy and traditional players. Some are not underdogs but bulldogs salivating at the idea of turning wild.

Of course, I do not intend to blame innovators I cannot bear the crime of stifling progress; but I intend to call out a business philosophy that is out of touch with the social realities of our time.  As for our governments, become more creative in policy; the layoffs we are witnessing are not a cyclical recession issue. Stop watching the cycle hoping it will pass, IT Won’t, read the bold writing on the wall – that this a new business model, an economic reality sustained by owners of capital. It will not pass! I have heard you though, that I need to be more gracious and positive that is why in the next article I will share my thoughts on how we can get into youths productive jobs despite this not so good news. At UReadyAfrica we want you to know that Africa has a solution within it.