Four lessons from youth work initiative

Public employment programmes can play a significant role in the fight against youth unemployment by providing young people with short-term work experience, skills and expanded social networks.

In a country where more than nine million young people are not in employment, education or training, the government has continually prioritised direct job creation though public employment programmes such as the Expanded Public Works Programmes (EPWP).

Although we have seen a consistent increase in expenditure on programmes aimed at enabling economic growth and job creation, these don’t seem effective in turning the tide on youth unemployment. Since 2004, the EPWP has generated more than eight million work opportunities. Although these short-term opportunities provide immediate relief to households, there is little understanding of how these critical inputs are positioned to connect young people with long-term work opportunities that will shift their future trajectories.

In response to Covid-19’s effect on jobs and livelihoods, public employment programmes have been given a prominent role. As part of the Presidential Employment Stimulus, the Basic Education Employment Initiative (BEEI) was implemented by the department of basic education. 

The largest programme in the first phase of the stimulus, the BEEI placed nearly 320 000 people aged 18 to 35 in more than 26 000 public schools in roles as either education assistants or general school assistants for five months, at a minimum wage. With the second phase of the programme recently announced, the first phase of the BEEI offers the opportunity for insights to ensure that public employment programmes benefit both young people and neighbourhoods.

To go beyond the number of opportunities created and to surface actionable lessons, Youth Capital, ORT SA Cape, and [email protected] conducted two online surveys in April 2021. We surveyed young people employed as assistants in public schools through the BEEI or other school assistant programmes, and school management personnel of schools that hosted these assistants, offering them a platform to evaluate their experiences.

From our survey it was clear that the support provided by these young assistants was positive not only for schools, but also for young people’s households and their neighbourhoods.

With 2 905 respondents and 108 schools’ management respondents, the sample is not representative of either young people or schools but the results, coupled with ORT SA Cape and [email protected]’s insights from their work experience programmes, offer four recommendations on making public employment programmes work effectively for young people:

Adequate capacity-building

Transferable skills are an integral component of these work experiences. Although 60% of young people reported receiving training from school staff members, only 23% of school management personnel believed the assistants had been adequately trained before they commenced work. Public employment programmes could provide some initial virtual training prior to starting work, by using zero-rated platforms such as In addition, ongoing training should be provided during the programme, to ensure maximum benefit from this work experience and to connect the participants with future opportunities.


Part of the purpose of school assistant programmes is to provide young people with a first real-world work experience, requiring guidance and mentorship to help them carry out their duties. Mentorship should be a compulsory component of school assistant programmes, and the role of the mentor and mentee should be clearly established at the beginning of the programme. Surveyed school staff members indicated their willingness to provide mentorship if briefed and trained ahead of the arrival of the assistants.

Contracts and exits 

Given the school holidays, a contract period of one year is optimal to provide the necessary training to the assistants, and to ensure that schools reap the maximum benefit for the time and money invested into each assistant. This insight is supported by the recommendations from surveyed schools, which indicated that contracts should be extended to cover the full school year. Furthermore, these programmes should be designed to provide a meaningful exit pathway. The BEEI offers a short-term opportunity, so training, support and information should be built-in to equip participants to navigate their next step in more informed ways and to add value to their job-seeking journey.

Candidates selection

Feedback from the schools that hosted assistants indicate that the overall experience is better for both assistants and schools if roles and responsibilities are made clear from the start. School management would prefer to be involved in the recruitment process, because they believed the wrong candidates were sometimes selected. In addition, placing young people in schools in the neighbourhoods where they live means they do not have to find and pay for transport to get to work on time. Recruitment should ensure that people are selected on merit in a fair, open process to prevent nepotism.

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Kristal Duncan-Williams
Kristal Duncan-Williams, who has a master's in public health from the University of Cape Town, is the project lead for Youth Capital, a project incubated by DG Murray Trust. She has over 10 years’ experience in research in the fields of molecular biology, public health and youth employment. She is passionate about unlocking the untapped potential of young South Africans and believes that quality education, healthcare and employment are the critical building blocks for a thriving society. She has experience in research-driven advocacy and is passionate about making data accessible and engaging for everyone, so that they are able and equipped to advocate for themselves
Beverly Da Costa
Beverly Da Costa is the chief executive of ORT SA CAPE, an NGO focusing on training and supporting teachers in under-resourced communities to ensure that the children they teach are able to learn effectively
Erica Kempken
Erica Kempken is the director at [email protected], which facilitates the creation of jobs within local schools and communities

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