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By providing young people with a short-term opportunity that gives them work experience, develops their transferable skills, and grows their social networks, public employment programmes can play a significant role in the fight against youth unemployment, write Kristal Duncan-Williams, Beverly Da Costa and Erica Kempken.

In a country where over nine million young people are not in employment, education, or training, the South African government has continually prioritised direct job creation through 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, EPWP has generated over eight million work opportunities; while these short-term opportunities provide immediate household relief, there is little understanding of how these critical inputs are positioned to connect young people with long-term opportunities that will shift their future trajectories.

In the response to COVID-19’s impact 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 (DBE). The largest programme in the first phase of the stimulus, the BEEI placed nearly 320 000 young people (aged 18-35) in over 26 000 public schools in roles as either education assistants or general school assistants for five months, at 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 communities.

Read the report: Did the Basic Education Employment Initiative work for young people?

In order to go beyond the number of opportunities created and to surface actionable lessons, Youth Capital, ORT SA Cape, and Youth@worK 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 immediately clear that the support provided by these young assistants positively impacted not only schools, but also young people’s households and communities. There exists a terrific opportunity to leverage interventions like these as part of a cohesive youth employment strategy.

With 2 905 youth respondents and 108 schools’ management respondents, the sample is not representative of either youth or schools; however, the results, coupled with ORT SA Cape and Youth@WorK’s insights from their work experience programmes, offer four recommendations on making public employment programmes work effectively for young people.

Young people need adequate capacity building opportunities.

Transferrable skills are an integral component of these work experiences. While 60% of youth reported receiving training from school staff, only 23% of school management personnel felt that the assistants had been adequately trained before they commenced work. Public employment programmes aimed at youth could provide some initial virtual training prior to commencement of official duties, by using zero-rated platforms like SAYouth.mobi. In addition, ongoing training should be provided during the programme, to ensure maximum benefit from this work experience and connect them with future opportunities.

Mentorship helps young people make the most out of these 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 indicated their willingness to provide mentorship if briefed and trained ahead of the arrival of the assistants.

Contract period and exit pathways make a positive impact.

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, who indicated that contracts should be extended to cover the full school year. Furthermore, these programmes should be designed to provide a meaningful exit pathway to those who participate. As the BEEI offers a short-term opportunity, training, support and information should be built-in, to practically equip participants to navigate their next step in more informed ways; and add value to their job-seeking journey.

The selection of candidates and schools add to the experience.

Feedback from the schools who 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, as in some instances they felt the wrong candidates were selected, leading to a poor overall experience of the programme. In addition, placing youth in schools within the communities where they live is beneficial as they do not have to navigate transport issues (and costs) to get to work on time, and oftentimes they are already known by members of the school community. Recruitment should also ensure that youth are selected on merit in a fair, open process and avoid nepotism.

The BEEI demonstrates the potential of public employment programmes to provide a meaningful stepping stone to stable work and livelihoods for young people. To ensure that these opportunities are truly beneficial in the long-term, we must go beyond the number of short-term opportunities created, and evaluate the impact these programmes play in a young person’s journey to decent work. It’s crucial that we learn from ongoing programmes; by implementing these four recommendations we can make sure that Phase II of the BEEI is successful not only for the young people who participate, but for our economy and our country.

Kristal Duncan-Williams is the Project Lead at Youth Capital, a youth-led advocacy campaign to reduce youth unemployment though the implementation of an Action Plan.

Beverly Da Costa is the CEO 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.

The piece appeared in the Mail & Guardian on 8 October 2021.

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