In recent years, we talk about entrepreneurship as if it is the panacea that will end youth unemployment. Although it is undeniably an integral part of the solution, we must also devise other solutions. After all we can’t all be entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship is a solution mostly geared toward young people who are at least 18 years old. But what is done upstream, before the university level? Do we encourage certain practices in younger people who are still in high school to foster both an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong work ethic in them?
Part-time work in high school can offer new insights for youth employment. In many countries, especially the most developed, it is customary for high school students to study and work part time. This work can be remunerated or volunteer. Meanwhile in Senegal, it is unheard-of for most young people to work while in high school, not even during vacations. Teens from rural areas do come to the capital on summer vacations to work mostly as domestic workers and hawkers. This is not however what I discuss here, as this type of work is done informally for the most part.
If young people have the opportunity to work before college, they will be better equipped and prepared—instead of feeling parachuted in a job after college, without any previous work experience—as they pursue higher education and eventually get more specialized jobs.
In Senegal, the rarity of formal, regulated part-time work for teens can be explained by both socio-cultural and systemic factors. It is simply not part of the social norm to work while being a student. Most 16 year olds believe they are too young to think, or rather worry, about working. Not surprising because they are taught to rely entirely on their parents for financial support until they get a higher education degree and a job in their field of study.
Most Senegalese view study and work as mutually exclusive, particularly before college. Study and work have to happen chronologically: study first, then work. Our society also seems to reinforce the idea that one must necessarily work in their field of study. Therefore part-time jobs such as cashier, babysitter, waiter, and janitor are frowned upon and considered lowly jobs that only uneducated people should do. These tacit social standards foster a wait-and-see mindset in young people who do not explore their creativity or try to gain any professional experience before college.
Not only can part-time work provide a certain level of financial autonomy to young people (when it is remunerated), it also has other invaluable benefits. The popular saying “learning from experience is better than learning from books” is ever so relevant. Indeed, we have many brilliant students and college graduates who have countless degrees yet, once they are put on the job, are clueless and completely inefficient because they never had a real-life professional experience.
What we learn in school is not what we need or will use on the job. By making young people focus solely on studying, we deprive them of significant opportunities to acquire new skills and gain experience. If young people have the opportunity to work before college, they will be better equipped and prepared—instead of feeling parachuted in a job after college, without any previous work experience—as they pursue higher education and eventually get more specialized jobs.
More than the pecuniary aspect, part-time work constitutes a rite of passage into adulthood through familiarization with the work life and acquisition of crosscutting soft skills that can be useful for future professional and personal endeavors. These include the development of a heightened sense of responsibility, independence, initiative, time and money management but also a much-needed experience in writing resumes and cover letters as well as preparing for interviews. Furthermore, it allows young people to explore different career paths and become more aware of their interests, which can help them make an informed decision about whether they want go to college, what they want to major in, or even decide to venture into entrepreneurship.
Considering all these benefits, how do we create an environment that is more enabling of youth part-time work?
With the current education system in Senegal where students virtually have classes from dawn to dusk, Monday through Saturday, it is difficult to encourage them to have productive extra-curricular activities such as part-time paid or volunteer work. It would thus be wise for the government to adjust school hours to accommodate these activities. The government would also have to revise the current labor code in order to regulate the working hours, wages, and types of work students can do.
In addition, it will need the cooperation of companies in the public and private sector as well as nonprofit organizations. They could review their hiring policies and offer students jobs that don’t require specific experience or expertise. In the initial phase, we could envision a partnership between all these parties in the form of a rewarding system in which the best students are given the priority in the hiring process, which could represent an incentive for the other students to perform better in school. If part-time work is to be implemented, there should be campaigns to raise awareness about the benefits of engaging in professional activities while in school, regardless of the field of study.
To tackle youth unemployment, we must think outside of the box and have a more holistic approach that allows the testing of diverse and creative solutions. I believe part-time work can be a game changer in youth employment as it can prevent uninformed career choices, boost entrepreneurial spirit, build relevant skills employers look for, and in a nutshell, give young people a great head start in work and life.
Photo: Sarah Farhat/World Bank