Across the country, young people tell us daily about the barriers they face when looking for work. Stuck in the transition between education and jobs, many are without certificates to show for their years of schooling. They lack the psychosocial support and the social capital necessary to find work and are unable to afford the costs of job-seeking. Young people’s lives are at odds with the far too often top-down, inflexible solutions to unemployment. With the youth unemployment rate at 58.2%, the highest rate in the last decade, the need for a cohesive plan informed by young people’s experiences has become more pressing than ever before.
To ensure that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Presidential Youth Employment Intervention, announced during his the State of the Nation address, does not become just another list of lofty plans, we must ensure the experiences of young people are prioritised in its design and delivery. This six-point plan aims to change the way young South Africans get access to employment opportunities.
1. Creating a national pathway management network
The network, which aims to provide work seekers with access to a basic package of support and work-readiness training to better match them to economic opportunities, does well in recognising how young people struggle to navigate the labour market and signal their skill sets to potential employers. Likewise, employers struggle to sift through thousands of CVs to find the right young people to match to their jobs. The network needs to support people to also connect to irregular or informal jobs, and help them grow and leverage their skills in the labour market through a range of experiences on the way to a decent job.
We need to also ensure that the support package extends beyond CV writing and interview skills. Many young people are kept out of the labour market because of a lack of childcare, having to look after family members with poor health, and a lack of resources to pay for printing of CVs, transport to interviews or browsing online for jobs. Many have already experienced years of rejection and the mental health burden of this cannot be overstated. If the network and basic package of support are to make a significant dent, it must offer psychosocial and healthcare assistance, as well as a cellphone data allocation. There are a number of organisations whose expertise should be leveraged: JobStarter, for example, delivers data-light work-readiness courses through cellphones, while Action Volunteers Africa offers a holistic journey for volunteers, from training to employment, including support on managing their finances and breaking through negative self-beliefs.
2. Developing skills in key growth sectors
The plan’s second priority aims to equip young people with the skills to access opportunities in key growth sectors, such as the food, green and waste economies. While targeting these skills is crucial, any conversation about upskilling must include discussions about the low rate of completion across all levels of our skills system. Whether it is the 50% of people who leave school without a matric certificate, or the unknown high number who don’t complete technical and vocational education and training college qualifications, or the 40% that don’t finish their degrees.
We need to develop a catch-up strategy for those who’ve been left behind. How are our learners expected to excel in subjects like coding and robotics if they cannot read and count? If we are to respond and get all learners and students on-track, we need tools such as the department of basic education’s Data Driven Districts project, to more effectively track learners through basic education and identify when they drop out, triggering support to get them back on track. The current data systems for the college sector are virtually unusable for gathering intelligence on how students are doing. Reports on the overall performance of the sector are released two years after the fact. We need the right data to ensure we can immediately respond to major issues in our education and skills institutions.
3. Innovative ways to support youth entrepreneurship
The Presidential Youth Employment Intervention’s entrepreneurship support prioritises removing barriers and creating spaces to help businesses thrive by making data affordable and targeting sectors that are ripe for innovation. We welcome the Competition Commission’s recommended deep cuts to data pricing, and the president’s announcement of discounts, daily data allocations and the zero-rating of educational websites. Each month, young people spend on average R380 on data looking for work — and with 8.2-million young South Africans not in employment, education or training, this issue requires urgent resolution.
However, beyond removing this constraint, the reality is that innovation-driven entrepreneurship is unlikely to be a panacea for youth employment without also connecting young people to precedent-setting opportunities to gain work exposure. The lack of exposure to the world of work is a major stumbling block for this initiative. Most young people find opportunities through someone they know, yet two out of every five 15- to 24-year-olds live in a household without an employed adult. Youth need guidance as much as they need infrastructure, and so what is needed is a national drive to connect people across the poles of society, and to expose young people to opportunity through simple, powerful, connections.
4. The Youth Employment Initiative
Funded by the national budget, this initiative includes grant funding and business support by the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and the department of small business development for 1 000 young entrepreneurs in the first 100 days after the State of the Nation address. This is a laudable target, but young people don’t trust, and are disillusioned with the NYDA. To build trust in its ability to really address the needs of young South Africans, Parliament must ensure that in its process to appoint new NYDA board members, it does not simply reproduce ANC political appointees, but selects independent-minded experts in the field of youth development. Its initiatives must be transparent, with strong tracking of the youth-led businesses and a learning process in place to ensure that the budget allocation for the initiative actually reaches the designated beneficiaries for its intended purpose.
5. Practical experience for young people
The president plans to scale up the Youth Employment Service (YES), a business-led partnership with government and labour to assist young people to gain work experience to progress into the job market. YES was first announced in the 2018 State of the Nation address, with the promise to place a million young people into work experience internships within three years. Two years on and YES has placed 32 000 young people in 12-month work experience opportunities. This gap may point to the fact that tax and broad-based black economic empowerment incentives are not able to drive a real change in the employment and investment patterns of corporate South Africa. For YES to be truly effective, we need to ensure that we learn lessons from the experience of the corporates and young people participating in the initiative.
6. The Presidential Youth Service Programme
This priority expands on the National Youth Service programme, promoting work opportunities for young people who are willing to give back to their communities. Given the number of socioeconomic issues facing our country, advancing the employability of young people through volunteer jobs in the social and care sector is a win-win. There are examples of how Community Work Programme workers have been increasing access to early childhood development, and running reading clubs through nongovernmental organisations such as SmartStart and Nal’ibali. Participating in such initiatives can be an even greater win for young people if they are provided with strong mentorship, reference letters and support to navigate pathways into future careers.
Addressing a youth dialogue in Cape Town, Ramaphosa said we will only tackle the youth unemployment crisis “if we are willing to change the way that we work and do things differently”. We couldn’t agree more. Let’s work together and use the voices, viewpoints and experiences of young people as the starting point and driving force behind each of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention’s priorities to ensure the intervention goes from plan to progress.
Kristal Duncan-Williams is the project lead on the DG Murray Trust’s Youth Capital campaign, which connects research and young people’s views and experiences to build a collective driving an agenda for youth employment