Youth unemployment is often presented as a security risk in post-conflict countries, yet the relationship between labour market exclusion and engagement in violence remains little understood. This paper opens up one aspect of this relationship, analysing how the employment aspirations of Sierra Leone’s marginal youth relate to their decisions to take part in political unrest. Telling the stories of urban youth involved to varying degrees in violent episodes shows how violence is used as a tactic to signal loyalty to political strongmen. Such loyalty is hoped to result in the establishment of relations of reciprocity that will offer a road to socially valued employment. Comparing the experiences of two groups of young people, similar in their socio-economic background and experiences of violence but different in their collocation in political networks, reveals two things. Firstly, availability for violence was insufficient to achieve durable incorporation, as pre-existing social ties determined the nature of recruitment. Secondly, as even those embedded in politicians’ networks of reciprocity appeared ultimately unable to escape marginality, their experiences cast doubt on the expediency of using violence as a way into the labour market, making the exploitative nature of these relations starkly evident.