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Low-paid professionals: When having a university degree isn't worth anything 

Stories of four professionals who had to accept low-paying jobs in Nicaragua to make ends meet and support their families

Ilustración: Confidencial

Iván Olivares

12 de septiembre 2023

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A professional with a degree in marketing counts manufactured goods in a Free Trade Zone company in Managua. A graduate in banking and finance does the accounts of a farm in Carazo. A lawyer tends to a small family business, while a sociologist does security at a warehouse in an industrial park in the capital. They all expected something else from life, but this is the best they could get in Nicaragua.

According to the Monthly Employment Report, prepared by the National Institute of Development Information, "In June 2023, the net employment rate at the national level was 96.7%," with 3.3% open unemployment, and 39.2% underemployment, a category that includes anyone who has worked even one hour a month, as well as those who do not receive the salary they should for the work performed, or for the number of hours worked.


While none of the four nicaraguan professionals interviewed by CONFIDENTIAL can be considered underemployed, the fact is that at the time they finished their studies, none of them thought they would have to work in jobs so different from what they had studied for. None of them have a salary that is even close to $250 a month.

Their experiences as students are characterized by economic hardship and the effort –by their parents, themselves, and even their friends– to assure them the resources needed to successfully complete their university studies.

There are two other things they have in common: They have never been able to to practice their profession fully, and they had to accept jobs for which they were overqualified, which is often an impediment to pass the filter of the Human Resources department.

A marketer in the Free Trade Zone

Alexander graduated with a degree in marketing from the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua (UNAN Managua) at the beginning of the last decade. He was able to get his degree thanks to the efforts of his mother, who paid for his studies with the profits from a small business that operated in her home. His contribution was to be as frugal as possible. For example, instead of buying books, he photocopied only the parts of the books he was going to use. 

After graduating, he looked for a job where he could put the knowledge he had acquired in college to use, but "I was never able to get a marketing job. The closest thing I found was as a book and encyclopedia salesman, where I was able to use sales techniques I learned in class. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't," he says.

He left that job so many years ago that he can't even remember exactly when. Since then, Alexander has looked for work in dozens of places, until in 2017 he got a job at a small private university working as an archives assistant and in academic registration, until he was laid off in 2020 during a downsizing move in the context of the new reality caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In March of this year, the son of a friend of Alexander's mother, who works as a line manager in a company in the Free Trade Zone, told him they were hiring in the production area of that factory. Although the job was not what Alexander expected, he realized that being a garment counter in a company that manufactures pants for export was not so bad after all... and he accepted.

Alexander's routine changed on March 20. Before then he got up early to be available to assist his mother in the small family business. Now he has to be at work from Monday to Friday, from 7:00 a.m. to 5:06 p.m., with a fifteen-minute break in the middle of the morning and thirty minutes for lunch, eating while standing up if possible, to make the most of the time.

Although he says he does not feel mistreated, Alexander acknowledges that he doesn't have much chance of climbing the ladder, because "In the Free Trade Zone companies, they don't take into account your education level, and if there is any possibility of promotion, it will be after many years." Although a salary of 8,000 córdobas per month ($219 at the current exchange rate) isn't not much, Alexander has resigned himself to it because at least it helps cover his retired mother's expenses.

Overqualified to take care of a warehouse 

Ernesto graduated from the Central American University (UCA) in 2006, alternating studies with work to cover his expenses. Sometimes he had to ask his friends to lend him money to cover costs, even though he had a stable salary. The first year he even had to work night shifts to be able to study during the day, although he didn't complain because he felt that "since I was young, I was strong." 

After graduating, Ernesto found opportunities to study other things, obtaining a postgraduate degree in "Gender Mainstreaming of Curricular Content of the Police Training Program" at the Police Academy, and another in "Constructivist Didactic Planning and Educational Evaluation" at the Paulo Freire University.

Despite his studies, he had few options to find formal employment, recalling that at the beginning of this decade he worked as a research assistant in an international NGO that worked in Nicaragua, in addition to working for 19 days in the Ministry of Education.

"I was an inventory technician at the Ministry of Education, and national supervisor of private and subsidized schools, but I left after 19 days, because they had assigned me to load chairs. The reason they gave for firing me was because when they evaluated me, they said that I had not performed the duties of my position. Of course I had not performed the duties of my position!," he recalls indignantly.

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Ernesto says that he also worked as a teacher, but he is convinced that his being laid off from the school where he worked was a result of pressure from Ministry officials, so he dedicated himself to commerce. He found stores that sold backpacks, umbrellas, shoes, women's clothing, fanny packs, that he could buy and resell at a good price. He also made piñatas.

At the end of January of this year, he started working as a security guard. Ernesto learned about this job possibility one day when a neighbor came to invite him to support a children's activity. That's when he found out there was an opening. He asked about it and was told to apply. He did so, without telling the interviewer he had a bachelor's degree, for fear he'd be told the familiar "Thank you, but you are overqualified."

"I decided to accept it for personal comfort. I don't like jobs without economic stability, or that pay you well for a while and then you don't know. This job is disappointing from a professional standpoint, but personally I feel good, because it allows me some level of financial security" to be able to help his mother, he explains.

Regarding his current duties, he analyzes that he has "a good gig": He guards a warehouse within an industrial complex, where there is very little chance of any violence occurring, so he does not have a weapon assigned to him. He thinks he might have been assigned there because they noticed his academic level. For the time being, he uses the time available to study English and do exercise.

Better to earn $205 a month than to sell her conscience

Karen earned a degree in banking and finance at the UNAN in Carazo in 2007, thanks to the support of her father, who worked in a printing company, and her grandmother, who used part of her retirement income to help pay for Karen's expenses. Karen also worked as a babysitter when the opportunity arose.

Sixteen years later, Karen's resume shows that she was never able to work in her profession, and that the most stable job she had was eight years in customer service in what was then called a medical pension company (EMP). She left that job in 2016. "I looked for jobs in other EMPs, even in Managua, trusting that my eight years of experience on my resume would be a good selling point, but nothing," she recalls.

Karen also sought employment at the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), but was disappointed to discover that "they were only hiring young people," and by then, she was 40 years old. Plus, she said, "I am not willing to fulfill the political requirements they were imposing on me." As a result, she spent five years unemployed, cleaning houses when she was lucky.

Karen's situation improved when a friend from high school, whom she had attended to when she arrived at the EMP where she worked, told her that there was a position available for three months to cover for the assistant accountant at a farm who had been given three months leave. Karen went for the interview and was accepted, and was offered a salary of 7,500 córdobas ($205) per month.

Karen had to take refresher courses, and went to work on the farm. Although the contract was for three months, in the end they kept her in the position, where she is waiting to see if she can improve her situation. Karen is happy because she can help her daughter who is studying a health-related career, and she can also contribute to household expenses.

I don't want to be tainted 

At the end of the 1990s, Federico graduated with a degree in legal sciences with a major in business law from the Central American University of Business Sciences (UCEM). He says, "It was difficult, because I had a family to support," and he only had his salary to cover all household expenses plus tuition at a private university. "Although they subsidized our monthly tuition, many times I couldn't cover that expense without loans, but I did manage to finish," he explains. 

Contrary to what one might expect, Federico never practiced law, but it was his own decision. He says that he still has the resolution of the Supreme Court of Justice that says he had earned the title, "but I never went to pick it up because I came to the conclusion that I still considered myself a decent person, but this profession has a reputation of corruption and lack of ethics associated with it, which clashes with my values."

In addition to being at peace with his conscience, another reason Federico doesn't regret his decision to not practice law is because he has been able to work in the family business all this time, even though at the moment, this means having to get up at 3:40 in the morning to get ready to board a public transport bus, which gets him to Ciudad Sandino after traveling two hours so he can start serving his customers at 8 a.m. 

Although it is not a job that will allow him to save enough money to buy a car, Federico says that at least he can cover the expenses of his family, which includes his wife and two school-age children.

"I'm surviving, and in Nicaragua's current conditions that's saying a lot, especially when I hear so many people saying they're in bad shape. Every day someone tells me that one of my customers has closed up shop and left the country. Another customer left for the United States, and I hear he arrived. I know the owners of at least seven motorcycle and automobile repair shops who left the country" because of the economic situation and political instability, said Federico.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff.

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Iván Olivares

Iván Olivares

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Durante más de veinte años se ha desempeñado en CONFIDENCIAL como periodista de Economía. Antes trabajó en el semanario La Crónica, el diario La Prensa y El Nuevo Diario. Además, ha publicado en el Diario de Hoy, de El Salvador. Ha ganado en dos ocasiones el Premio a la Excelencia en Periodismo Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, en Nicaragua.

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