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24 Aug 2012 12:14
Government says work-seeker grants have a role in addressing youth unemployment. (David Harrison, M&G)
Youth unemployment is a major challenge as millions of young people – the talent base of society – are left without jobs and without hope.
Enormous as our challenge is, we are not alone. Youth unemployment is a growing crisis across the world.
The International Labour Organisation estimates that, internationally, 75-million people between the ages of 15 and 24 cannot find work.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development finds that high levels of youth unemployment have persisted in the wake of the financial crisis and threaten to scar young people, affecting their career paths and future income.
It is important to remember this because, regrettably, a blame game has infused much of the discussion – as if we have policies perversely designed to keep young people out of jobs.
There is a saying: beware those who come with simplistic answers to complex problems.
I have listened to the opposition's somewhat glib prescriptions, the praise song to one silver bullet that will solve all our youth employment problems.
They promise everyone everything from one simple intervention and then seek to demonise and delegitimise anyone who disagrees – in this case, most of the main youth organisations as well as major unions.
It is, of course, the luxury of opposition to ignore practical realities.
This is not to say there is no place for subsidies to work seekers or work creators aimed at bringing young people into jobs. However, in contrast to the Democratic Alliance, the government is working on an inclusive, multipronged strategy suited to the scale of the challenge we face.
In June this year, 185 governments assembled with the world's major business and trade union representatives to discuss youth unemployment. Their call for action says young people's voices should be heard, their creativity engaged and their rights respected in dealing with the youth employment crisis. Youth organisations have rightly said: no solution for us without us.
We need to forge a consensus on how to address youth employment, instead of a kragdadige [forceful]approach to push through a single measure in the face of opposition from youth organisations and trade unions.
We have now ramped up social dialogue on youth employment.
From June this year we elevated the discussions to leadership level, called in the leaders of Business Leadership South Africa, the Black Business Council and Business Unity South Africa, the representatives of women, disabled persons, civic organisations and, above all, youth representatives drawn from the South African Youth Council and the leaders of trade union federations Cosatu, Fedusa and Nactu.
The parties have agreed on the importance of a compact on youth employment and identified core principles and programmes.
They include current and potential private sector initiatives on skills, internships, work-readiness programmes and bridging measures to draw young people into employment on a large scale.
They recognised the value of a public sector programme of youth brigades focused on rural, environmental, literacy, health and other activities and drawing on the experience of current programmes.
Again, no single mechanism can address the challenge of youth unemployment. As the International Labour Organisation says, we require an "integrated approach that combines macroeconomic policies and targeted measures which address labour demand and supply, as well as the quantity and quality of employment".
This is particularly true in South Africa, where we face both a demographic bulge and the extraordinary levels of joblessness and exclusion that apartheid left behind.
That is why we need a new growth path. But structural change takes time. For that reason, we are looking to short- as well as long-term measures and a package that is proportionate to the scale of the problem.
We are taking action as the government. We have set targets for public employment schemes that should have a real effect on youth joblessness.
The expanded public works programme has about 800 000 participants. Moreover, Cabinet decided on substantially growing the community work programme tenfold to a million participants by 2015.
Youth brigades let young people serve their communities and work together. We are talking to our social partners and youth organisations about setting up brigades for health, education, rural development and green issues, among others.
The skills accord lays the basis for expanding apprenticeships and internships. The public service committed to 60 000 new internships, about seven times as many as today. The private sector and state-owned enterprises also set themselves stretch targets.
Finally, we are exploring work-seeker and work-creator subsidies with stakeholders.
For the longer run, the new growth path identifies key jobs drivers in the economy with the national infrastructure plan and the industrial policy action plan as key levers to support them.
Where jobs drivers benefit from government support, we will set targets for new entrants – for instance, in the green economy and infrastructure, business-process services and the digital migration in broadcasting.
We have tabled a proposal for a youth employment committee under the National Economic and Development Labour Council to consider specific proposals to boost employment for young workers. By building in collaboration, it would avoid unnecessary conflict as well as exploitative programmes.
In addition, where young people want to start their own business, the government will help them. The government is establishing specific programmes for youth entrepreneurs and co-ops, including a role in installing solar water heaters.
Education counts. Today, less than 10% of young people with a tertiary degree are unemployed, compared with 35% of those with matric and 40% of those who never finished secondary school.
The skills and education accords capture strong commitments by the social partners. We will also accelerate work on the second-chance matric. Moreover, the green paper on post-secondary education and training foresees a tenfold expansion in further education and training institutions to four million by 2030, whereas higher education doubles to 1.5-million. And we are working with social partners to improve the transition from school to work, including through expanded counselling and support for job searches.
We cannot address joblessness on the scale left by apartheid through tax incentives alone, although the full range of measures, including carefully structured subsidies and grants, have a role to play.
We can also not help young people through measures that displace older workers. That approach would deepen social divisions and poverty. It has already failed the youth of the Western Cape.
Ultimately, we need collective action and solidarity to bring about systemic changes so that the economy can provide opportunities for all. That is the path foreseen in the Freedom Charter. That is the aim of the new growth path, the national infrastructure plan and the national development plan. That is why we need a multipronged strategy to deal with youth unemployment.
Ebrahim Patel is Economic Development Minister.
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