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 high costs of job-seeking. Young people’s lives are simply at odds with the far too often top-down, inflexible solutions to unemployment. And with the youth unemployment rate sitting at 58.2% – the highest rate in the last decade – the need for a cohesive plan informed by young people’s lived experiences has become more pressing than ever before.
In order to ensure that President Ramaphosa’s ‘Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI)’ announced at the State of the Nation Address (SONA) does not become just another list of lofty plans, we must ensure the real lived experiences of young people are prioritised in its design and delivery.
The six-point plan to change the way young South Africans access employment opportunities must do more than just build top-down systems which are difficult and costly for young people to navigate.
1. Creating a National Pathway Management Network.
The National Pathway Management Network – which aims to provide young 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 skillsets to potential employers. Likewise, employers struggle to sift through thousands of CVs to find the right young people to match to their jobs. However, for full impact in a constrained labour market, the pathway management network needs to support young 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 an absolute 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 national pathway management network and basic package of support are to make a significant dent, it must offer psychosocial and healthcare assistance, as well as a mobile data allocation. There are a number of existing organisations whose expertise should be leveraged: JobStarter, for example, delivers data-light work-readiness courses via mobile phones, 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 that undermine young people’s ability to thrive and perform in the work place.
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 go hand-in-hand with discussions about the low rate of completion across all levels of our skills system. Whether it is the 50% of young people who leave school without a matric certificate, or the unknown high number who don’t complete TVET qualifications, or the 40% that don’t finish their degrees – a key drain on our skills system is that many young people who start, don’t finish.
We urgently need to develop a catch-up strategy for those who’ve already 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 DBE’s Data Driven Districts (DDD) project, to more effectively track learners through basic education and identify when they disengage – triggering support to get them back on track. The current data systems for the TVET sector are virtually unusable for gathering real intelligence on how students are doing – and 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 PYEI’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 8.2million young South Africans not in employment, education or training (NEET), 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 real, precedent-setting opportunities to gain work exposure. Most high-impact entrepreneurs have already worked in the sectors in which they innovate solutions. So 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 15–24-year-olds in the country live in a household without an employed adult. Youth need guidance as much as they need infrastructure, and so what is needed is a major national drive to connect people across the poles of society, and to expose young people to opportunity through simple, powerful, connections.
4. 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 post SONA. While this is a laudable target, there is significant distrust and disillusionment by young people of the NYDA. In order 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 SONA, with the promise to place 1 million young people into work experience ‘internships’ within three years. Two years on, and YES has managed to place 32 000 young people into 12-month work experience opportunities. This gap may point to the fact that tax and B-BBEE incentives are not able to drive a real change in the employment and investment patterns of corporate South Africa. For YES to be truly impactful – whether it scales or not – we need to ensure that we learn deep lessons from the experience of both the corporates and young people participating in the initiative.
6. Presidential Youth Service Programme.
This priority expands on the National Youth Service (NYS) Programme, promoting work opportunities for youth who are willing to give back to their communities. Given the number of socio-economic 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 the Community Work Programme (CWP) workers have been increasing access to early childhood development, and running community reading clubs through NGO partners 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 onto pathways into future careers.
Addressing a pre-SONA youth dialogue in Cape Town, President 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 lived experiences of young people as the starting point and driving force behind each of the PYEI’s priorities to ensure the intervention goes from plan to progress.
Youth Capital is a youth-led advocacy campaign that connects research and young people’s voices and experiences to build a nationwide collective driving an agenda for youth employment in South Africa. Kristal Duncan-WIlliam is Youth Capital’s Project Lead.
 Statistics South Africa. 2019. Quarterly labour force survey Q3 and Q4.
 Powell, L. and Simon McGrath. 2019. “Capability or Employability: Orientating VET Towards ‘Real Work.’” in Springer Handbook of Vocational Education and Training, edited by M. Simon, M. Mulder, J. Papier, and R. Suart. Dordrecht: Springer.
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 JobStarter, like Youth Capital, is a project funded by the DG Murray Trust.
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