Students’ internships dwindle as Covid-19 batters Zimbabwe´s industries.

By Audrey Simango

Hamudi Jambo 23 can no longer graduate in June 2022 unless she finds an internship as a trainee accountant by June 1. She is desperate. The finance company where she was hoping to work as an intern, a trainee accountant, has sent half of its workforce to work from home and avoid workplace COVID infections.  

“If financial industry mentors are working from their bedrooms at home – what hope do we have as students interns of getting an apprenticeship?” says Hamudi in Harare, Zimbabwe´s capital. 

In Zimbabwe, universities and technical colleges require their students to work for three months to one year as trainee workers in industries, offices, or farms. It is called job-experience. The goal is for the student to gain the much-needed experience before graduation. For example, in Zimbabwe trainee teachers – must spend at least 12 months, midway through their diploma, serving in schools to gain practical job experiences. Factories, schools, charities, or government departments, offer one or two types of apprenticeship in Zimbabwe: paid or voluntary work. 

“As a university student you find an internship at a dream organization like the UN in Zimbabwe it´s worth it, you have one foot into the door to a full-time job after graduation,” reveals Hamudi who attends the University of Zimbabwe, the largest in the country. 

Covid decreases apprenticeships

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, has restricted human movement in cities and further scaled down Zimbabwe´s factories and labor offices. For example, mining companies, which bring the largest foreign currency earnings to Zimbabwe were predicted to see a 60% fall in production.  Hence, the multiple “lockdowns”  of the economy and public life as Zimbabwe´s authorities have rolled them throughout 2020, have brought bigger woes to college students hoping to gain a traineeship in its already troubled domestic industries.

“I´m an orphan, learning on a scholarship. If I don’t get an internship and graduate – my hopes of ever graduating are gone forever,” says Hamudi. “Who will continue to pay college fees for the student that never graduates?”

Zimbabwe´s jobless graduates

Zimbabwe enrolls thousands of university graduates every year and graduates thousands too. For example, the University of Zimbabwe alone capped 4.959 students in December 2020.

However, Zimbabwe´s economy is bleeding. Steve Hanke, an economist at the Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project puts Zimbabwe´s inflation at 106% inflation in May 2021. A dire shortage of foreign currency, and new factory machinery investment means Zimbabwe´s 18 to 34 age group make 60% of the country´s overall unemployment rate. In recent years, humiliating pictures of Zimbabwe´s university graduates selling cigarettes and sweets on the streets to earn a living, have emerged. “So, yes it´s so important that a university student in Zimbabwe gets an internship midway through their degree. That´s the only way to have a better chance of finding contacts who could give you a permanent job after graduation,” says Obrien Nhachi, an independent social scientist in the capital Harare.  

Time is running out

If Zimbabwe´s job market was already bad before the pandemic, then it can be considered dire now. “It´s so tiring,” says Shantelle Mutswa, 20, a trainee mechanic at a college in Mutare, Zimbabwe´s third-biggest city. 

Shantelle says she has deposited 12 copies of her resume at the receptions of 12 mechanical companies in April alone.  “None of the mechanical companies have ever called me even for an interview. Time is running out. Without an internship, my professor says I will have to re-do a whole year of my mechanical engineering diploma in 2022.”

The pandemic and vanishing student apprenticeship opportunities for Zimbabwe´s college students are a Catch-22 situation, says public economist and auctioneer Carter Mavhiza. “Many company secretaries, accountants, engineers, managers are working from home to avoid mixing at work and cross-infecting each other with COVID. It´s risky for companies to bring apprenticeship students onsite when their mentors are already working from home.”

Lucky software students

This state of affairs fits students like Nyasha Gore, 23, who is studying software engineering in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe´s second-biggest city, and is in his third year of studies. “I´m lucky,” says Nyasha. “I found an internship with a website building company that is willing to mentor me via Slack, Zoom, and GitHub from home. With software design, there´s no physical contact and no need to bring us, students, into office buildings.”

Nyasha´s luck is opposite to a student like Joanita Sembe, 22, who is studying for a diploma in theology at Rusitu College in Zimbabwe. “I´d like to be a pastor. My internship rules mean I must find a church that hires me to minister. I can’t do this online. My deadline to find an internship was 20 May. I failed, and must re-do four months of my diploma in 2022.”

Repeating a year of a diploma is such a hard prospect for Zimbabwe students. “First the small job market doesn’t wait for you to finish up,” says sociologist Tichaona Jongwe. “Secondly, students debts must be repaid whilst students don´t graduate.” Each year, thousands of university students drop out of studies without finishing because raising money is hard. 

There´s a chunk of Zimbabwe students who may abandon their studies midway, disheartened by failure to find internships and being forced to re-do school for another year.”  

Sociologist Tichaona Jongwe blames Zimbabwe´s universities. “In the 90s past colleges and universities would actively seek apprenticeships for their students. Professors had address books full of employers’ phone numbers. It was a good network to linking industries and universities. Today, universities in Zimbabwe simply care about collect students’ tuition money.”

Audrey Simango is a freelance Zimbabwe journalist. Her work appears in Newsweek, The Africa Report and This text was first published on taz Panterblog in the original English and in a slightly modified translated version (OS).