University graduation should be a time of celebration and opportunity, with the promise of a fulfilling career ahead. But for too many Ethiopian graduates today, the reality is far different. Their diplomas sit idle as they struggle to find work worthy of their skills and potential. While more students than ever are accessing higher education, the economy has failed to create enough quality jobs to match.
The high-stakes national exam that once promised opportunity now delivers only stress and disappointment for many. Facing a bleak job market, graduates feel their talents are wasted and potential withering. Passing meant the door to opportunity opened wide while failing felt like the end of the road.
Options after failing the exam were extremely limited. Except for a handful of new private universities, higher education seemed out of reach without passing the exam.
Private universities carried a stigma. Though respected professors taught there, they had a remedial reputation. Students who attended were seen as second-rate.
For a generation, this one test made or broke futures. The pressure to pass, immense. Failure, nearly unthinkable.
Exam times were incredibly stressful. Families of passing students bragged endlessly while those of failing students faced shame and disappointment. So passing was crucial and getting a university degree meant a lot.
University graduations were momentous occasions. Donning the black gown, showing photos to friends and family was priceless. University was challenging; many students couldn’t keep their grades up to graduate.
But finding a job after earning a bachelor’s degree was fairly easy then. Over 90 percent of my university peers found matching work within a year. Those with highest grades found jobs fastest.
However, today that black graduation gown seems like a mourning garment. Despite university being easier to access, getting a job after graduating has become incredibly hard for many. The esteem that once came with a bachelor’s degree has diminished.
I recently saw a heartbreaking documentary about a textile engineering graduate from Bahir Dar University. After graduating, she got a job at a textile factory in Hawassa but lost it due to the AGOA ban during the Northern Ethiopia conflict. Despite searching endlessly, she couldn’t find work and ended up shining shoes in Addis Ababa.
How tragic – an engineering graduate forced into a shoeshine role. Her strength and determination are admirable. But how many others share her story?
Today, fear likely dominates the feelings of university graduates. Fear of not finding work. Fear of a job that barely covers necessities. Fear of a job unworthy of the struggles of higher education.
The growing graduate unemployment rate threatens to become an economic and social crisis if left unaddressed. Ethiopia’s youth need solutions that prioritize using their skills, knowledge and creativity. Unless the job market improves, university degrees risk becoming honored only in name, worthless in practice.