In December, Fourah Bay College will hold its annual graduation ceremony. However, the majority of its graduates who will have degrees in sociology, history, political science, and mass communications, will come into a workforce that doesn’t have jobs for them.
Last week I put out an advert for a part-time cook whose salary is $100 a month and over 100 people applied.
This got me thinking about joblessness and youth unemployment in Sierra Leone. Since 2012 when a UNDP report said that there were 700,000 unemployed young people here that number has not changed.
There are technical skills that are needed but this generation doesn’t yet realize that there is where the money is.
This week I paid $400 to a carpenter to make chairs and tables, and an additional $700 to a welder to make window rails and guards for my office building. The people doing these jobs are not college grads but they earn more from gigs like mine than most salaried workers. Why are more young people not attracted to skilled jobs that offer well-paying gigs? Why stick around for a monthly salary that just isn’t enough?
If you go to a carpentry workshop to learn you won’t be turned away if you’re insistent and come everyday. Same with an electrician, cook, traditional dance and drumming, artisanal crafts, AC repair, Refrigerator repair or plumber or welder or in my case photography, videography and digital skills.
These are skills people are willing to teach but the question is are we willing to seek them out and learn? Do we see the value in these skills?
This economy that we are in doesn’t have room for liberal arts degree holders. What we do have are untapped opportunities in the service industry, retail industry and demand for technical skills.
My first degree is in political science. If I could do college again I would have gone into a more technical field with tangible skills. Thankfully, I came to Sierra Leone with that prestigious no skill degree to work over a decade ago and learned very quickly that speaking English about democratization, weak state theory, or neocolonialism and its impact on globalization just were not going to put money in my account. Great conversation for first dates though.
After 4 years working in Sierra Leone (2007-2011) I decided to go to graduate school but this time I was sure to choose a field that would teach me skills. As a journalist I learned writing, photography, and videography. Now you might be saying those aren’t technical skills but trust me when I say worse comes to worse I will always have food on my table so long as there are African weddings and an Aunty celebrating a milestone birthday. In Freetown I’ve been paid $1000 for one day videography work and that’s even small for what take homes are for photo or video wedding coverage in the sub-region.
What needs to happen in Sierra Leone isn’t necessarily a revolutionary overhaul of our educational system in order for us to change the statistics around youth unemployment. We can increase enrollment and the quality of education and still end up with a high unemployment rate. When it comes to unemployment no to school na di problem, rather it’s matching skills to meet both the local and global. Does Sierra Leone need anymore political scientists?
We need government policy that supports and provides skills training (digital skills included) and more importantly, young people need to think beyond the formal job market. Office jobs are nice and you get to dress up but go and ask any established fashion designer Hudson Martin, Madame Wokie earn in sales from fashion brands monthly or Shirley at Rooftop how attieke has transformed her inflows. You go clap, yes even cooking is a skill.
There is work here, and money here to be made if you have the right skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. Provide services and use your skills to solve problems that potential clients in the local market have.
The problem is that our young people have been told to look for jobs. Parents, teachers, and government continue to perpetuate the myth that if you go get a degree that you will get a job when there is nothing to support this. The jobs to employ all the graduated political scientists, international relations, and conflict and peace studies degree holders are never ever going to exist here or anywhere actually. Na skill day gee wok no to degree.
But no need to worry! Betteh day!
There are opportunities here that are missed because we think we have degrees and are waiting for an Aunt or Uncle to get us a big name job with a bad name salary. Lek ow di name kin long ‘Administrative and Financial Manager’ na so di money kin af.
But don’t despair there is hope. Sierra Leone’s underemployed/unemployed are beginning to tap into and create a local side-gig economy. I call it a side-gig economy to distinguish what’s happening here from the “gig economy” overseas which is more temp/flexible work you find online eg. uber driver, freelance writer, etc.
The side-gig economy’s only barrier to entry is internet access. You don’t need to register anything with any government office but from anywhere, anyone can start a business and sell services and goods online using their Whatsapp status updates, Whatsapp broadcast lists and groups, Instagram and Facebook. This is already happening and we should encourage it and help it grow.
Early players in the side-gig economy are college graduates who find themselves unemployed or underemployed. Without needing to register a business they can find customers online. Sierra Leone’s side-gig economy has lawyers with online fashion brands, communications degree holders selling home cooked meals, pharmacists turned makeup artist, and doctors with photography studios, to name just a few.
This side-gig economy that’s just beginning here is flourishing in Ghana, Nigeria, and across the continent where youth are using social media to drive sales. Sierra Leone is only catching on now because mobile data prices are getting affordable (though more to be done) and the stigma and shame associated with entrepreneurship for college graduates or the employed and middle class is less.
That being said the conversation around what is a respectable job or what is employment needs to change. At the JSS and SSS level adolescents need to be introduced to jobs and skills that are not limited to law and medicine. Yes parents support your children who want to do baking, and or jewelry design! Those are skills!
Young people need to know that in the Sierra Leone of today and the one of the near future being the best olehleh maker in town is a worthy skill that customers will pay for in the side-gig economy. And yes an olehleh maker can turn that olehleh business into a franchise and a food manufacturing company that makes instant microwaveable olehleh. And that you can create a global phenomenon and a culture and brand around olehleh like Pizza Hut or KFC Chicken. But for this global olehleh domination the skill must be learned and mastered.
Where do you start? Like any business you start by solving problems.
Think first about the audience, potential buyers in Sierra Leone? What problems can you solve for people with your skills and or services?
For example as a masta sabi of olehleh you would be solving the problem of access. Your unique selling point would be to make a local delicacy that is hard to find/buy more readily available. You will do retail and wholesale olehleh for events and you will deliver olehleh. You will brand your olehleh and you will start a Facebook and Instagram page. Then you will post photos of your olehleh and how someone can order on your Whatsapp status. You will tell them about the different flavor options and different toppings. Because you’re trying to keep the culture alive you will make only authentic olehleh in banana leaf.
And just like that before you know it, you have built an olehleh empire, providing jobs with several olehleh outlets and planning to take your brand across the continent and later the world.
This is what is in store for you today for any skill you learn and any service you provide. No matter how “local” the skill know that if you’re adding value to people’s lives there is no limit to how far you can grow if you master that skill.
Sierra Leone does not have jobs for us, myself included. What it does have is opportunities for those of us willing to learn skills that match the needs of this side-gig economy. Don’t let fear or a sense of entitlement stop you from learning a new skill or turning that skill into a service or product. Whatever you do, go and learn a skill.
Di gron is very dri but we also live next to the ocean. If di wata noh cam to you, go mit am wit you buckit.