Ms Sarah Otieno pulls out her iPad during aÂ mid-morningÂ coffee meeting to check her e-mail.
â€œGive me a minute. I am looking at job applications,â€ she says.
At least 10 young hopefuls, with formidable technology degrees from some of Kenyaâ€™s best universities, have applied for the position she advertised. She discards all of them.
Otieno runs a medium-sized IT services outsourcing firm targeting small businesses that cannot afford to pay IBM or Oracle to manage their data centres.
She has set high recruitment standards and is unwilling to bend any of them. She does not want any â€œentitled degree-holdersâ€ working for her company.
She would rather have a diploma holder, or even a high-schoolÂ drop-out, as long as they can demonstrate skill and passion.
This aversion to hiring degree holders for some positions is not unique. It stretches well beyond Otienoâ€™s small outfit to one of Kenyaâ€™s largest employers.
Safaricom has been pursuing a deliberate policy to expand the recruitment net for entrants into its customer care department.Â This department constitutes about 40 to 50 per cent of the telecom companyâ€™s workforce.
â€œI donâ€™t have a degree. I am running a pretty large company and it would be hypocritical of me to run this company while telling diploma holders that they canâ€™t work in the call centre,â€ Safaricom CEO Bob Collymore told Saturday Nation in a telephone interview.
The company is also working to bridge the remuneration and benefits gap between employees with diplomas and their colleagues in similar positions who have degree qualifications.
Mr Collymore wants to ensure that diploma holders get a fair chance at promotions and on-the-job training if they demonstrate ambition and merit.
He, however, adds that for some technical and engineering positions in his company, the highest educational qualifications would always be the preferred norm.
In a society with an almost rabid desire for academic titles, why would any right thinking employer compromise on education qualifications?
Ms Otieno is afraid that young degree holders will not invest themselves in the growth of her small company, prompted by their ambition to always eye the next big thing.
Despite some of the most progressive employee benefits at its customer care centre, Mr Collymore admits that Safaricom faces challenges managing the aspirations of university graduates.
â€œAt the end of the day, we will only utilise 60 to 70 per cent of this personâ€™s potential. They will obviously have ambitions to utilise their skills more effectively,â€ said Mr Collymore.
Human resource professionals have an answer that is blunter. Degree holders in Kenya are expensive, restless and not always qualified to perform the jobs that they are seeking.
Ms Winnie Kenduiywa, the director of Kenya Recruitment Consultants, notes that many graduates rely too heavily on their education and fail to work on other areas that are critically needed, especially their attitude towards work and life.
Their financial expectations are also far above what other job seekers hope for. The employers reason that it is more strategic to hire people at diploma level.
â€œEmployers can build company loyalty in diploma holders through providing them with on-the-job training. This provides the employers with fairly cheap and qualified labour,â€ she said.
This is the tale of East Africaâ€™s largest retail chain. Nakumattâ€™s minimum job requirement is a post-secondary certificate. The company is investing up to Sh100 million in in-house training to turn these recruits into management material since educational institutions, it claims, do not cater to its specific needs.
â€œThere is only one retail management training school run by Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. This means that to feed our human resource needs, we have to cast our net wider to capture non-retail management diploma holders,â€ said Nakumattâ€™s managing director Atul Shah.
Although there is not enough scientific evidence to justify calling these employment preferences a trend, recruitment officials at Deloitte have professed to seeing employers in more developed economies increasingly opting for recruits with lower education levels.
â€œIn South Africa, we have seen large retail chains and cellphone companies start to lower their academic requirements. It is mostly about costs and trying to keep the wage bill down.
â€˜â€˜However, they are unwilling to compromise on experience. Kenya may be going down the same path,â€ said Deloitte consulting director Robbie Quercia.
According to the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS), there are more than 20 million people in the 15-64 age group.Â The economic survey 2012 reports that there were about 11 million people employed in the country last year. Seventy per cent of the unemployed are the youth.
At the same time, the country is churning out an increasing number of university graduates. Student enrolment in universities grew from 118,239 in 2007 to 198,260 last year. The number of registered universities and degree offering institutions also shot up from 41 in 2007 to 120 in 2011.
Ironically, these numbers were not necessarily driven by demand from the job market. â€œThe job market is not demanding these degrees. Individuals who want certificates and papers are demanding these degrees,â€ said Mr Patrick Mutisya, a senior human resources consultant at recruitment firm Manpower Services.
A curious phenomenon emerges from this situation. The market is oversaturated with degrees and some segments are characterised by high unemployment. Yet, practitioners in certain fields are still complaining of gaps in skills.
In 2011, the fastest growing job segment was building and construction. As Kenya pursues an ambitious infrastructure plan under the Vision 2030 umbrella, it is expected that jobs in this segment will continue to grow.
Unfortunately, â€œself-respectingâ€ graduates would not consider working in the emerging jobs. More tragically, most of them are unemployable in this sector.
â€œWalk into a typical construction site and try to find out how many qualified architects and engineers are working there. Itâ€™s mostly self-trained people,â€ said Prof Alfred Omenya, a dean at Kenya Polytechnic.
The gap is also evident in other less technical sectors. In an academic paper published earlier this year in the Baraton Interdisciplinary Journal, researcher Catherine Amimo notes that the inability of the educational sector in the country to meet the needs of the job market has been worsening since the early 1970s.
Kenyaâ€™s institutions of higher education are producing graduates who do not have the problem solving expertise and the independence to thrive in todayâ€™s job market. Further, the creativity that is vital to post-industrial, information driven economies has been systematically conditioned out of them.
â€œNo wonder, a significant number of graduates cannot easily find jobs and are often forced to compete for lower skilled jobs,â€ Ms Amimo concludes.
In the past, job applicants with lower qualifications always tended to be on the losing side of this competition. However, if preferences witnessed in Safaricom and Nakumatt continue, this trend may be reversed.
Historically, according to Mr Omenya, Kenyaâ€™s education system was designed to train bureaucrats. An architect could receive a degree then proceed to the Public Works ministry in the government where she would receive hands-on skills.
Offerings in the educational system are now mismatched with a ballooning private sector that is unwilling to spend precious resources imparting skills that ought to have been developed during education.