Kenya: Internships as the Trial Run for Employment?
Thursday, 27 January 2011
Internships can give companies and interns a combination of on-the-job training and prolonged assessment centre. However, such work experience is still underused in Kenya, and not necessarily because corporate are not interested in interns. By Michael Onsando.

Flood of Graduates
Every July, Kenya’s universities release thousands of graduates into the labour market. Public universities alone are admitting around 10,000 students annually. This growing number of graduates faces an already flooded and highly competitive job market, even more so given the relatively small size of Kenya’s formal economy. And like anywhere else, with little practical experience, most graduates are not entirely ready to take on a full job. In principle, internships can create that bridge between studies and employment and can give companies and interns a combination of on-the-job training and prolonged assessment centre.

Worth Applying For?
Internship opportunities in Kenya are few and far between: interns require mentoring if they are to produce any results, the number of companies that can absorb interns is limited, and Kenya’s notoriously high levels of corruption do not help either: if internships are awarded to nephews and nieces, the application process becomes futile. And ironically, the perception that this is how the selection of interns is made also threatens to undermine the confidence of students to apply with those corporate that decide on internships on merit, HR managers indicate.

Those who do apply are often hamstrung by weak language and presentation skills, seemingly unaware of the formal requirements that corporates expect: “Applications received are quite often misspelled and wrongly punctuated” said Veronica Waiyaki, Human Capital and Administration Manager of the Capital Markets Authority (CMA), in a concern echoed by the other companies interviewed. This creates doubt whether the applicant is really suitable for a graduate position.

Finally, the links between universities and the corporate sector have also not been fully exploited. Each university has a placement office that collects graduate CVs and is meant to support them in finding work experience opportunities or employment. But according to Susan Kihato, Manager of Human Resources at insurance firm Aon East Africa, this is hardly ever the case: “You are tossed from one line to the next since no one seems willing to assist you - not just at public universities, but at private universities as well. On some occasions, I have been forced to speak directly to lecturers and deans of several universities.”

Experience or Cheap Labour?
An internship is intended to be work experience: for the intern to gain a first insight into the demands of professional employment, for the company to assess the candidate’s abilities, soft and hard skills. But often interns merely get a stream of menial labour like e.g. scanning or making badges. Interestingly, however, many do not find this problematic. Instead, they argue that “it is worth the letter of recommendation” or “I am making great contacts for the future.” Their emphasis is on working harder in order to get employed. This can be a slippery slope: sometimes, graduates end up in what effectively amounts to a regular position, but are still on an unpaid internship contract.

Even though an internship is by no means a guarantee of a follow-up offer of employment, Kenyan companies have made positive experiences with interns: “At least 20% of our staff here started as interns” said David Sagia, Head of Human Resources in the Vision Institute of Professionals. “When you get an intern, it is as if you were given a clean slate to write upon and it is up to you to decide what you want to write on that slate,” said Veronica Waiyaki.

 About the Author

About the author: Michael Onsando is a second year law student and currently an intern at Ratio Magazine

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