At the State of the Nation Address last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa outlined his Government’s four priorities for the year ahead: defeating the virus, accelerating economic growth, implementing economic reforms to create sustainable jobs and drive inclusive growth, and fighting corruption. These are pressing matters to jumpstart our growth, but the role young people can play in this context needed more attention.
COVID-19 not only affected young people‘s transition from “learning to earning”, but with the economy plunging under the weight of numerous lockdowns, young people’s ability to hold onto their jobs also waned. Taking into account that 4 in 10 young people are not in education, employment or training, and the fact that young people will be last in line to receive the vaccine, we have to be realistic about a recovery plan that recognises the long-term effects of the pandemic on young people.
Daily, young people remind Youth Capital that their journey to employment comprises layered complexities. As one young person in our network puts it, “Access to information, education and employment opportunities can be really hard and limited by background and social status, especially where there is no community or family support for the individual”. As has been shown by research, the longer young people are unemployed, the more difficult job-seeking becomes. While we look ahead to the Budget speech, we need to critically assess the interventions mentioned in SONA that can provide an opportunity to focus our efforts, and meaningfully include young people’s experiences. There are four key interventions that we believe are implementable and will have big impact.
1. Solve the certification bottleneck for the manufacturing revival.
The President focused on manufacturing support programmes to revive the local textile and automotive industry to increase locally manufactured products. To ensure that young people can actively participate in these sectors, we have to make realistic plans to clear the certification backlog and guarantee that students at Technical and Vocational Colleges (TVETs) are able to complete the work-based placed learning component of their qualification.
In 2020 the M&G reported that more than 40 000 certificates for qualifications offered at TVET colleges are outstanding, due to a backlog of the Department of Higher Education that “stretches back to 1992”. Unable to show certification for the qualifications that they have completed, these young people are either unemployed or working in entry-level jobs. Clearing this hurdle would automatically unlock opportunities for a great number of young people with the correct skills and qualifications, but it requires a short-term injection of resources. Moreover, young people currently enrolled at TVETs are unable to complete the practical component of their qualification because of COVID-19 protocols. We need to urgently prioritize support for these students so that they can become economically active. In the long-term, we need reforms so that the TVET sector functions more effectively to provide the type of skilled graduates the economy needs.
2. Make the Presidential Employment Stimulus Plan into a productive stepping stone to further opportunities.
Launched in October 2020, the Plan aims to create close to 800 000 opportunities within the current financial year in 11 sectors, with the inclusion of social employment. Advancing youth employment while improving access to services is, on paper, a constructive way to support the socio-economic development of South Africa, and reverse some of the long-term impacts of COVID-19.
The 300 000 teacher assistants hired through the programme can support teachers, who are overburdened by the need to catch up with the delays from 2020. It’s a win-win situation for this sector; even though it wasn’t in the SONA spotlight, the effects of the pandemic are adding enormous challenges to the way young people are supported to navigate and succeed in their education journey.
For this short-term experience to be truly impactful, we need to ensure that young people are equipped with transferrable skills and reference letters that can lower the barriers to future employment. As one member of the Youth Capital network explains, “employers need you to have relevant work experience but few are offering opportunities for young people to get trained”. Lastly, these jobs provide their beneficiaries with an income that can be ploughed back into their local economy; this is a positive domino effect in such difficult times. But this Plan needs to be anchored in solid financial projections for the year ahead, as phase one of the stimulus closes at the end of March 2021. We urgently require a long-term strategy that recognises the value that these opportunities could bring to young jobseekers and, as a result, to economic recovery.
3.Provide essential income support to young people.
The special COVID-19 Grant of R350 has been extended until March 2021, after helping about five million people put food on the table since May 2020. As the economy contracts even further, this grant is not only providing some assistance to the majority of the population; it’s an integral component of an economic rescue plan. In a recent article explaining the results from the National Income Dynamics Study Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (NIDS-CRAM) Wave 3, Nic Spaull remarks “What we are seeing is that more economic growth and more social grants are the left-right combo South Africa needs to move forward. One without the other won’t work”. The National Treasury needs to make strategic allocations for the rollout of a long-term basic income grant to drive inclusive economic participation. We know that before the pandemic, many young people were kept out of the labour market because they were unable to afford the high cost of job-seeking -from data and transport, to childcare costs. This situation has only worsened with the current economic climate; as young people are some of the most adversely hit by the pandemic, a long-term grant, which accounts for gender disparities, is essential in providing assistance while the economy recovers.
4. Make platforms like SAYouth.mobi more inclusive of the wide-range of experience young people do have.
SA Youth.mobi, the recently launched national pathway management network, is a key component of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention and aims to connect young people with opportunities to work, learn and volunteer. We know that some of the most recurring challenges young people face in transitioning to earning include a lack of social capital (namely, a network that can connect them with opportunities); and the information asymmetries between young jobseekers and potential employers.
Young people have numerous skills acquired through their hustles in the informal sector, volunteering work and incomplete qualifications, but employers rate experience based only on formal work and complete educational qualifications. To be a real game changer, SA Youth.mobi has to go beyond making opportunities visible to young people; it has to translate their holistic experience into recognised signals that employers can use when evaluating young candidates.
Youth unemployment has been steadily increasing for the last decade and the economic repercussions of COVID-19 have already proved to only worsen the situation. As civil society we are faced with a unique opportunity to think innovatively and strategically for real change, leveraging these existing interventions to create a new normal for pathways into sustainable livelihoods for young South Africans. But we need the Treasury to financially support this economic recovery in a youth-centric way.