Workers who can’t afford jobs

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Published Nov 2, 2015


Cape Town - Africa has a multitude of “unemployed” but experienced workers who have youth on their side, many of whom started generating an income when the middle classes were eating packed lunches on playing fields.

Many are not “job-seekers” because they cannot afford to get a job and leave their many existing roles and responsibilities. A theme that emerged during the inaugural MasterCard Foundation Young Africa Works Summit in Cape Town on Thursday and Friday was “formality bias”, which is a severe stumbling block to youth employment in Africa, the most informal of continents.

Scores of young Africans are way ahead of the curve in terms of real work experience and the resultant skills.

They are able to spot opportunity and solve problems, yet this collateral is invisible to many employers who seek more formal qualifications to do a job. A neat file of certificates is often seen as far preferable to life experience, which can be so messy and real.

Formality bias, a term coined by journalist and author of The Bright Continent and a keynote speaker at the conference, Dayo Olopade, was frequently mentioned, by name or implication, at the summit that brought together hundreds of experts, practitioners, young people, and policymakers to discuss youth unemployment in Africa.

Discussion about this generation of workers brought to mind images of people currently marching across Europe, many of them with their children in their arms, only to be told when they finally reach the gates that they are not wanted there.

People who have risked everything to make a better life, who have shown such dedication to their children, and extraordinary levels of tenacity and courage, who would surely be an asset to any country.

Similarly, many young Africans who are frequently the sole carer for younger siblings (great skills for management and human resources, one might think) before they are teenagers, grow vegetables (agriculture, horticulture) for the household and sell surplus to people in their community (marketing and sales), among many other things.

This is to mention just a few of the roles they tend to juggle and the soft skills they develop as a result.

Many African youngsters take on all kinds of work: manual labour, cleaning, caring, anything that will keep the family alive. They frequently produce and trade goods and services and seed ideas that would be called entrepreneurial anywhere else.

Yet they would fall at the first hurdle in many a job interview - where did you go to university?

They are disciplined and punctual because they know the cost of being disorganised or missing a bus or an early customer; they are skilled at spotting opportunities and are accomplished at solving problems; they are generally mature communicators because they must negotiate with adults and as adults from a very young age.

These people often possess soft skills in abundance, the very skills that are so in demand at modern companies, yet harder to measure and put on a CV than a degree in this and a certificate in that.

The many lessons from the University of Life and the College of Hard Knocks are so in demand, yet they do not fit in neatly with formality bias, which characterises employment. As mixed livelihoods become more entrenched as the norm, largely through necessity, companies will find themselves less able to pick and choose between people toting degrees and certificates seeking full-time work.

The private sector would be well advised to start embracing the part-time worker or consultant with an abundance of soft skills and life experience, but few certificates.

A good place to start for information would be the MasterCard Foundation's Youth Livelihoods programme, which has seen the foundation commit $291 million since 2010 to 29 multi-year projects across 16 countries in Africa, reaching more than 455 000 young people. Preliminary results of the foundation's Youth Diaries Livelihoods project were released at this week's conference.

The project, which used peer-to-peer interviews and an innovative diaries methodology to examine the day-to-day employment activities of young people in Ghana and Uganda over six months, highlights the extraordinary lengths that young people go to as they try to achieve sustainable livelihoods


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