SENEGAL: Plight of thousands of jobless graduates

Graduate unemployment in Senegal continues to increase, and has become such a critical issue that it could be the major theme of the campaign for the presidential election in February 2012. Since March unemployed graduates have been demonstrating in protest against their plight.

The national agency of statistics and demography has officially estimated that there are 400,000 unemployed graduates in the country.

Aged between 25 and 35 they have completed university studies lasting between four and seven years in faculties of law, humanities, medicine and sciences. Others have graduated from institutions of higher education in disciplines as diverse as planning, management, accounting and statistics.

Although they have bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in professional areas, these young people are struggling to fit into the socio-professional world because of lack of appropriate skills and experience. They spend their days twiddling their thumbs because they cannot find suitable work.

In July a group of about 2,500 masters and PhD graduates from UCAD, the University of Cheikh Anta Diop - the oldest and biggest university in Senegal, with more than 60,000 students - threatened to disrupt the organisation of the school-leaving baccalauréat exams to make the authorities listen to them.

The group called on its members to demonstrate in Dakar's Place de l'Indépendance and at the gates of the Palace of the Republic.

The graduates also demonstrated outside the baccalauréat offices, before calling for calm to avoid penalising young bac candidates who were not responsible for their plight.

But they also planned protests this month and at the start of the university year in October to express anger at remaining without work and income despite having obtained degrees.

Senegal has five public universities, half a dozen secular and religious private universities and many colleges and technical schools. They turn out 100,000 graduates each year, most of whom have problems finding employment.

According to sources close to the employment services, the total number of unemployed graduates over the past 10 years may far exceed official estimates - the more so, as since 2006 there have been no competitive admission examinations to the legal bar or the Ecole Nationale de Magistrature, the national school for the magistrature.

Graduates in pharmacy face similar difficulties in finding employment, because rather than recruit them owners of pharmacies prefer to employ shop assistants without specialised qualifications, to reduce their wage bill.

Only graduates of arts and humanities, and in some cases of economics and management, appear able to find internships or a limited number of jobs. Some are taken on by the Ministry of Education in the pre-school, primary, middle and national languages sectors, to fill gaps in the teaching force as volunteers or as temporary teachers while they wait for permanent public service jobs between two and four years later.

Economics and management graduates who do not find work can sometimes find internships in companies and banks. Such openings are rare, though, because they often require intervention from high-level contacts in political or economic circles.

To avoid remaining idle, the less fortunate graduates enrol for further studies. Known in universities as 'eternal students', these unemployed graduates believe their bad luck is due to a recent trend for many managers of retirement age to continue working, through a legal loophole.

Instead of receiving a salary they sign two-year contracts, renewable once. Others, such as directors, presidents of company boards and mayors, find ways to combine two or three posts, while young graduates remain unemployed.

The ministry's director of employment recognised the problem when he met representatives of the group of unemployed graduates, who condemned their situation.

In March, the group held a peaceful march to protest against the new practices hindering the recruitment of young graduates, and against the national unemployment rate of 43% that remains despite the fact that private companies are capable of providing 24,000 jobs a year.

The same group of unemployed graduates has sent its demands - and proposals to solve the problem - to all national institutions: the president's office, the national assembly, the senate, the Economic and Social Council and the Public and Civil Service Ministry.

Babacar Ndour, President of the Coalition of Higher Education Unemployed Graduates, said only the Economic and Social Council and the national assembly had so far met the group following its memorandum.

The office of the president promised the coalition that 100,000 young people would be recruited by 2012. History recalls that during the 2000 campaign, the president's favourite slogan related to the issue of youth employment.

But what the graduates most dislike was the reaction of Amadou Tidiane Bâ, the Minister of Higher Education, who told them to take up farming.

If the graduate unemployment rate continues to increase at the present rate, the 40% of the annual budget the state spends on education risks being a wasted investment.