Career advice to African youth

Indeed, for many young Africans, it is inherently difficult to enter the workforce without a powerful uncle to open doors for you.

According to the African Development Bank, Africa’s youth population is rapidly growing and expected to double to over 830 million by 2050.

If properly harnessed, this increase in the working age population could support increased productivity and stronger, more inclusive economic growth across the continent.

However, this asset remains untapped due to unemployment and underemployment. The potential benefits of Africa’s youth population are unrealised as two thirds of non-student youth are unemployed, discouraged, or marginally employed.

Only three million formal jobs are created annually while 10-12 million youth seek to enter the workforce each year. Even when jobs are available, youth often do not have the skills required by employers – despite improved access to education over the past several decades.

With such a stiff competition for limited employment opportunities, what career advice would you give to today’s youth?

Instead of bombarding my friends with vacancy announcements, I use the narrative of a start-up business to motivate them to better position themselves to the ever-changing job market.

For anything desirable in the world, be it customers, jobs or a good school there is always competition. Just as a start-up find a specific edge over its competitors, you too must focus on finding your own competitive advantage.

A strong competitive advantage should emerge from the intersection of three forces:

Your assets are what you have now. They range from hard assets like the cash in your wallet to soft assets like your skills, experience and education. They develop over time, and their strength is always relative to the competition.

Thus you should prefer areas and markets where your assets shine brighter than those of your competitors.

The second force consists of your aspirations and values. These should reflect your core values and your vision for the future. Some might call them your passions, and they are integral to success. The guy who is passionate about what he is doing will inevitably outwork and outlast someone who is not.

Finally, market realities are the demands of the world around you. Your competitive advantage will be useless if no one is interested in it. On the other hand, the right competitive advantage can let you ride the very same market trends and technological shifts that threaten other people.

For each individual, the three forces above are not only constantly changing, but also fundamentally unknowable. For example, few of us truly know what we are passionate about. Thus the best you can do is to make hypotheses about these three forces, and adjust them as you go along.

In his book, The Startup of You, Reid Hoffman advises young professionals to always have plan A, B and Z so they can adapt as their understanding of themselves and the world changes.

Before Flickr became a hugely successful photo-sharing service, it was a multiplayer online game which just happened to have a popular application for sharing photos.

Before Sheryl Sandberg became the COO of Facebook, she worked at the World Bank, the US Treasury Department and even arch-rival Google.

At first, both Sheryl’s and Flickr’s transitions seem almost random. But for many notable professionals and successful start-ups, this kind of zigzagging is common.

“Making plans in line with your competitive advantage is important. But not only does the world around you constantly change, so does your understanding of your own interests and passions.

Hence you must adapt your plans accordingly. This is best achieved through ABZ planning, where several plans are made:

Plan A is what you are doing now, and it should reflect what you currently believe your competitive advantage is. You make minor adjustments as you learn, but basically you’re in a stable situation. A good plan A is versatile and flexible, allowing for many possible plan Bs.

Plan B is something that you pivot to, if it starts to look like a more attractive opportunity. It is usually somehow related to plan A, allowing you to keep one foot in familiar plan-A territory.

After pivoting, this becomes your new plan A, so you must define a new plan B.

Finally, Plan Z is your lifeboat, like living at your parents’ house temporarily. This is something you can support yourself with if all else fails. It is the very existence of a plan Z that gives you the confidence to pivot to plan B, assured that you will not end up living in the street”.

Twitter: @PascalMURASIRA

The views expressed in this article are of the author.