SA youth: Equal opportunity remains a dream

Statistics South Africa recently announced that youth unemployment in South Africa had fallen to 36.1% – that’s a 3.4% drop since 2008. I want to tell you (as a young person) not to worry about this, because it seems to be a global trend, but do … do worry about it.

Though the numbers for education and skills development have improved, this seems to have had no effect on employment. A better-equipped youth in terms of education does not necessarily equal a more employed youth.

The fall in numbers has been attributed to a mismatch between the types of skills young people equip themselves with, whether at universities or at further education and training colleges, and the jobs available to them.

Statistician general Pali Lehohla says the discrepancy is not unexpected. But are the unemployment rates for the youth really, totally, the government’s problem – or are the youth of today perhaps lacking in a skill that’s less available in classrooms: internal drive?

I didn’t study to become a teacher. The job, luckily enough, just fell into my lap. I needed the money, the job paid well and I ended up doing it for five years. I left completely saturated, yet confident that I had gained enough from it to move on and apply the experience elsewhere.

After a stint of packing groceries at the local Spar and being a cashier at the Juicy Lucy, I moved on to being a cocktail waitress. I was even a salesperson at a jewellery store for a very short period. None of these employment opportunities were anything to write home about. They did not pay spectacularly well. But the experience they afforded me is priceless.

It may be true that there just are not enough jobs available in the specific sectors the youth are trained in. But perhaps the young people of today also suffer from a lack of willingness to do just about everything and anything.

During a conversation with my colleagues they agreed that, in their experience, they were keen to do whatever it took to be employed – never mind that it was not the dream job or that it didn’t drip “sexy”.

There was also agreement that today’s young people want what they want or nothing at all. There was a general consensus about the notion that, though a tertiary education does count for something, employers also want to see that you have experience.

If there are no jobs available that match your qualifications, how do you get experience in your field to begin with, then? Internships, perhaps? Is South Africa’s lack of internship programmes across many fields letting its youth down?

Yes, larger corporations do offer help, usually in the form of bursaries. “We will pay for your education, and you get a job for the next five years of your life” – not a bad deal. But in the bigger picture, only a very small percentage of tertiary-educated graduates is afforded that opportunity, and usually in very specific trades: banking, engineering, actuarial science and the like.

If more unpaid internships did become available, would the youth necessarily see this as an opportunity to gain experience? A foot in the door? Or just another waste of time?

The “American dream” is not so different from the South African youth’s aspirations. But equal opportunities when it comes to getting jobs – dream jobs, in fact – so that all your aspirations and goals can be achieved, is just that – a dream. And, as the comedian George Carlin once said of the American dream: “You have to be asleep to believe it.”

I’d like to believe that, in South Africa, young people would choose to be awake. You need to be awake to be willing – and to be willing to experience.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is the social media editor of the Mail & Guardian. Follow her on Twitter @Sage_Of_Absurd.

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