With 5.9 million youth across South Africa bearing the brunt of South Africa’s high unemployment rate, a bold new initiative has been hailed by President Cyril Ramaphosa as one that “is set to change the lives of many young South Africans”.
Initially conceptualised close to 18 months ago as part of the CEO Initiative, a commitment on the part of the business sector to address youth unemployment, the Youth Employment Service (YES) launched on March 27. A partnership between business, government, and labour, YES aims to empower South African youth and black-owned SMMEs by placing the former into the latter, through the assistance of a number of large South African businesses including Investec, Unilever, and Absa.
“This is a timely, worthy and ambitious response to youth unemployment, which is perhaps the greatest and most pressing social and economic challenge facing our country at this moment in our history,” said Ramaphosa at the launch. “What we are seeking to do, through this and other initiatives, is provide pathways for young people into the world of work.”
YES aims to promote youth unemployment through structural redress. Tashmia Ismail-Saville, chief executive of YES, stresses that the restrictions on young people being able to enter the workforce usually stem from conditions beyond in their control. Apartheid architecture and poverty cycles have resulted in black youth often having limited options when it comes to being able to access employment, particularly if they do not hold any qualifications.
New pathways must be created for young people so they are not restricted when it comes to finding work due to their lack of means, lack of certification or their geographical conditions. “Low-income communities have huge potential in terms of the people who live there, but they are sometimes completely lost to the community, because they don’t have the structures to build them into jobs, where we can realise that potential,” says Ismail-Saville.
The SMME strategy is saying that the young people empowered through this initiative don’t have to be “in your building.” Through the example of young people working in SMMEs empowered by Investec in Sabie, Mpumalanga, who are building the tourism and hospitality industry, Saville-Ismail explains how the strategy works.
“Investec uses its resources to drive development and jobs in places where it’s needed. These are high-growth sectors such as hospitality, tourism and coding — there’s a move by YES to be quite strategic at where we direct the jobs and the money, to have as big an impact as possible by tying it into sectors with a lot of potential for future growth.”Ismail-Saville also emphasises how this is a programme that is aimed at corporates. “We want them to believe they can build those jobs. The last thing we want to do is make more broken promises to young people. We must build the jobs before we bring the young people in. But we can prepare them in the interim — we can give them work-readiness training, and empower them to make them make their own jobs happen for them.”
Government and large corporates will “canvass, encourage, motivate, and incentivise businesses” in communities to become members of YES, and then open up jobs within those communities. “If they’re black-owned SMMES, we will work on integrating young people into them, and even though they may not be doing the most sophisticated work, they’re watching and absorbing what business dynamics are about.
“We are trying to create these hubs where participants can then do these short courses around things like waitressing or cooking, and then we have an app with resources such as short videos which can help them, and templates with very clear structure for employers, such as reference letters that show your progress, so that when you exit the job you have a set of resources which you never had before,” says Ismail-Saville.
YES also places an emphasis on what Ismail-Saville refers to as “de-risking”, highlighting that employers in South Africa face tough labour laws and so they often avoid risks by not hiring. By having work experience, a CV and a reference letter to attest for them, South African youth are three times more likely to be able to find employment, with the effect being twice as much for women. “There is layer upon layer of challenge for a young person who doesn’t get a pathway to certification. The one aspect of de-risking is giving the young person the experience which de-risks them, but there’s also the element of de-risking things around creating jobs within the community, and falling out of jobs is then lowered.”
Thina Ralutemba (29) is a YES coach who works in her community of Diepsloot. Ralutemba is an accounting graduate from the University of Pretoria who became involved in a community initiative run by Unilever called Siyazekela. Through Siyazekela, she helps people in her community who run small businesses such as hair salons and spaza shops to regulate their businesses, and assists in the hub, where she coaches basic skills.
Professor Adrian Saville from The Gordon Institute of Business Science says that YES is a means of increasing South Africa’s labour force participation rate, thereby offering an opportunity to attain social prosperity. “South Africa’s population growth rate is 1.5% per year, productivity growth is 0.5% per year, and labour force participation is falling by 1% per year. This leaves South Africa’s structural growth rate at 1%, which means we’re falling behind,” he told the Mail & Guardian. Though using this model, YES becomes a means of capitalising on the labour resources that South Africa has at hand.
“At the moment we have 12 companies that are willing to take on between 400 and 3 000 youths per company,” says Colin Coleman, managing director of Goldman Sachs and co-convenor of YES alongside Investec’s Stephen Koseff. “Our eventual objective is 330 000 jobs per year, which is a massive undertaking that requires [the participation of] medium and small companies, and it’s important that they understand the incentives that are in place and the benefits of taking youth into their businesses; hopefully, this will become a reinforcing process.”
Ismail-Saville says that it is incumbent on South Africans to recognise their community responsibility. “If you’re a person born with privilege in South Africa, it is very difficult to enjoy it when you live in a world with such high inequality,” she told the M&G. “If you’re in a position where you can offer someone a chance, then you have to do it. I don’t think you can be a patriotic South African and not think about the future impact that the current rates of youth unemployment will have.”