Intern programme collapses

Starfish 2000, an innovative scheme to place unemployed youths in three-month internship programmes in private companies, government departments and other institutions to enable them to acquire working skills, may have to close shop after the withdrawal of its R3-million-a-year government grant. The programme has received funding for the past two years from the Department of Social Development’s poverty relief budget on a pilot basis.

Launched in 1998, Starfish has provided internships to more than 2000 young people, most of whom obtained permanent jobs afterwards.
Starfish chair, the Reverend Matt Esau, says without funds the organisation has no option but to stop implementing its programmes. “It’s sad that the government contribution to the programme has come to an end,” although he concedes it was initially agreed that the government would fund the pilot only.
However, “now that the government has come to the party, it is time for business to do so as well. It is very important for business to put their money where their mouths are.”

Esau, an Anglican priest in Mitchells Plain, said unemployment is increasing year by year but little is being done by the private sector in getting young people into jobs through bridging programmes such as Starfish 2000. He noted that of the 55 000 matriculants in the Western Cape last year, a few thousand might be fortunate enough to find jobs, and another few thousand students will find their way into technikons and universities for advanced and specialised training.

The vast majority, more than 35 000, will find themselves on the streets. “If an average of 30 000 young people a year don’t get jobs, we are talking about 150 000 matriculants over five years. That’s definitely a crisis,” Esau said. Many firms have extended the internships of young people sent to them by Starfish after the three-month period and then, frequently, offered permanent jobs. Even interns who did not obtain permanent jobs immediately have acquired sufficient work experience to be able to obtain jobs elsewhere.

Esau said that with sufficient resources he would have liked to extend Starfish throughout the country; the need is particularly great, he said, because most career information programmes that used to exist in centres around the country have except in Cape Town collapsed because of the withdrawal of donor funds.

Although he accepted that the poverty- relief grants over the past two years were accepted on both sides on the basis that Starfish was a pilot programme, Esau felt the department could have continued to fund it, even enabling it to develop into a national programme. The scheme was launched by the editor of the Cape Argus, Moegsien Williams, because of his concern at the number of young people in the Western Cape, many of them with matric certificates, unable to find jobs.

The programme’s unusual name was taken from a parable: “One day a man was walking along a beach when he discovered to his horror that a large area of the beach was covered by helpless starfish, washed in by the tide and left to perish in the sun. As he stood there contemplating their fate, he noticed a lone preoccupied figure further down the beach painstakingly casting the stranded starfish back into the water. He had already cleared a small patch but there were so many more. ‘This is futile,’ the walker said, pointing to the thousands of starfish scattered over the sand. The other man was unperturbed. Picking up another starfish he said: ‘I can assure you, it makes a big difference to this one.’”

Esau said Starfish 2000 would also like to reinstate its schools career guidance programme for grades 10 to 12 pupils inside schools, based on interviews, particularly since the policy of supporting career guidance teachers was scrapped following a decision by the national Department of Education. He wants to revamp their programme so that the concept of career choice is placed back on school syllabuses.

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