Image credit: UNHCR

Employability, not employment is one of the biggest challenges facing youth in Sub-Saharan Africa.  Employability is an individual’s capability to get a job, sustain employment and succeed in their chosen occupation. It is more than just having a job – it speaks to one’s ability to keep that job and progress to securing another. The reason employability is more desirable than employment is there is no longer any comfort in just having a job, as permanent employment is becoming less guaranteed. Many youths are undesirable job candidates for employers because they lack experience. Paradoxically few employers are willing to give them a platform to gain that experience. One of the most common concerns raised by employers pertaining to the employability of entry level candidates is their lack of soft skills, this includes those that have attained a tertiary qualification.

How then can youth increase their employability, if their lack of skills and experience is the very thing barring them from entry? A viable solution to the youth employability challenge is volunteering. Volunteering to build skills and increase one’s employability is a feasible means for youth to circumvent the challenge of being unemployable. It is also an avenue, given the right approach and guidance, that is attainable and likely applicable in various contexts and economic conditions. This article will discuss why employability, and not employment is the big challenge for youth, particularly in the context of gaining soft and transferable skills. Furthermore, the case for why volunteering is a great vehicle to building skills will be made along with how volunteer opportunities can translate to bolstering an individual’s ability to attain full-time paid work.


Employability not employment is key

Youth unemployment has many complex dynamics and is a combination of individual factors such as skills, knowledge, and personal attributes, as well as external factors such as economic and environment influences. The latter is often beyond an individual’s control. A discussion on the interactions between employability, soft skills and transferable skills is a key precursor in defining why it is hard for young people to get employment. Employability consists of an individual’s skills, knowledge and personal attributes that make them more likely to gain employment and succeed career wise. Being employable means having the qualities required to maintain employment and progress in the workplace. Employability is therefore not an end product or once off event, it is a process that continues throughout one’s career. Possessing a qualification does not automatically mean being employable, particularly for inexperienced entry level professionals. In fact, the skill that most employers consider deficient in entry level job seekers is soft kills. Soft skills are personal attributes required to be successful in a job. They include inter and intra personal abilities such as communication, teamwork, and problem solving. The predicament for entry level job seekers is that soft skills are not taught in the academic space (e.g. school and tertiary institutes) yet employers expect them and place great importance on them when considering how employable an individual is.

A concept related to soft skills is transferable skills. Transferable skills are skills gained in one environment but can be used and transferred to another environment. Transferable skills can therefore be applied to a wide range of industries and occupations. Some examples are leadership, time management and prioritising. If you have demonstrated leadership capabilities in one context i.e. sports, school, volunteer projects, the same leadership principles can be applied in leading people in another context such as the workplace. Many transferable skills are soft skills and most soft skills can be transferred and applied to other environments. Transferable skills are particularly important for youth to bolster their employability as they can motivate to employers that in the absence of work experience, they may possess transferable skills gained from the education or volunteer domain that they can apply to the world of work.

With the advent of the fourth industrial revolution which includes a high obsolescence rate of technical skills and role fluidity in the way jobs are structured, soft and transferable skills are going be become more desirable and will be in higher demand. Some of the “in demand” soft skills that employers are looking for are complex problem solving, time management, interpersonal skills, communication skills, adaptability, ability to learn, pro-activity, emotional intelligence, leadership, creativity and decision making among others. Many youths are lacking in these soft and transferable skills.

Youth employment in Sub-Saharan Africa is a growing concern, as the continent is expected to have 375 million young people become of working age in the next 15 years, thereby making it the youngest population in the world. The current employment situation in Africa is characterised by under-employment and vulnerable employment. The former is denoted by being employed but underutilised in terms of skills and time, the latter is typified by low and highly volatile earnings. It is of key importance, in regard to youth employability that our young career seekers be provided with qualitative platforms to build skills and be fully utilised according to their potential. With a limited availability of quality jobs, alternative considerations to skills building need to be considered in order for youth to be positioned competitively as skilled individuals in the labour market.


Volunteering: a vehicle to youth employability

In 2018, the global labour market outlook remains weak. The projected increase in economic growth is moderate and not expected to have a significant impact on improving employment conditions vis a growing workforce. Volunteering is therefore a way for young people to gain the much-needed employability skills while confronting a lack of quality job opportunities.

A caveat before embarking on the volunteering for employability rationale – for unemployed youth, paid quality work is always the ideal and should be the first and preferred option to pursue. Individuals need to be remunerated and compensated for their efforts and contributions while employed. Given the poverty levels in Sub-Saharan Africa, volunteering should be a temporary means to an end, where the sacrifices of potentially unpaid work will outweigh benefits in the long run.

The job market is often demand driven – the availability of jobs is determined by labour market needs and this, for the most part, is out of the job seeker’s control. Moreover, there is strong competition for open vacancies by qualified candidates, making it hard for inexperienced youths to stand a chance. Volunteering is an avenue conducive for building skills and getting work exposure without an employer having to commit to a full-time contract and remuneration.  Pragmatically, volunteering is an easier “ask” and theoretically requires less commitment and formalities. The employer does not technically have to allocate any budget or make concrete commitments towards the volunteer relationship. (However, to avoid exploitative and abuse practices, a stipend for volunteers is always highly recommended).

Research supports volunteering as a way for young people to increase their employability, and in particular, develop soft skills that educational institutions are not addressing adequately. A LinkedIn survey found that volunteer work experience was equally as valued as paid work by hiring managers when evaluating candidates. Volunteering also illustrates to potential employers that an individual has demonstrated a willingness to work and is committed to their own professional development. A caveat is that not all volunteer opportunities will have an equal effect on increasing employability. Young people must first consider the skills they want to gain, ideally in line with their desired career paths, and focus on volunteer opportunities connected to their anticipated future roles.

The suggested volunteering in this context is not confined to traditional and structured volunteer programs that often have a humanitarian focus. The recommended volunteering suggested focuses on inexperienced individuals approaching any organisation in any sector that can provide a platform for them to build the particular skills they are looking for. It is a “push approach” where unemployed youths exert themselves on opportunities without waiting for vacancies. This approach seeks to empower young people to be proactive about seeking and creating opportunities despite market conditions. Volunteering allows individuals to create opportunities, engage with the world of work and circumvent barriers to employment.

In approaching organisations, the suggested tactic is a “problem-solving-volunteer” method. As opposed to an “I-need-to-get-skills” approach. When engaging an organisation as an inexperienced candidate, the perception is often that the individual has limited value to add. In fact, providing exposure or work experience to entry level job seekers is often considered a “cost” as the organisation deems that they need to allocate, time, staff and other resources in getting this inexperienced individual upskilled. The problem-solving-volunteer approach is where an individual, in order to gain experience, approaches a company with an offer to solve a problem for them i.e. boost their social media presence, research alternative cost-effective systems for their accounting etc. The problem-solving-volunteer engages a company as someone looking to add value, while using the company as a platform for them to build skills. A company will more likely be willing to engage a young person wanting to solve a problem for them rather than one merely looking to build skills.

Some key employability benefits that can be derived from volunteering include, increased professional networks, building skills and experience. Volunteering exposes individuals to interacting with other professionals in the world of work. This is particularly important in increasing social capital which can contribute to career growth in the long run. Even if the work is unpaid, volunteering enables candidates to build skills, namely soft, transferable and technical skills which are a key to being employable. Volunteer opportunities are also a fairly safe place to learn about the world of work without pressure and expectations often experienced by full time hires. (Although as a volunteer, your work ethic should be that of a full-time employee). Other indirect value-adds of volunteering, is to enable youths to enter the job market on a more confident and competitive basis.

In closing, youths in Sub-Saharan Africa are facing the challenge of being unemployable. Soft and transferable skills as well as experience significantly contribute to an individual’s capability to be competitive on the job market and secure employment. In the absence of available quality job opportunities and willingness of employers to train up youths, volunteering is an alternative option. The opening of vacancies is out of job seekers control, but approaching companies on a problem-solving-volunteer basis can empower youths to find a “back-door” to engaging with the world of work and increasing their employability in order to secure paid and full-time employment.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the Future Africa Forum.