Jobless youth need help
IF THE struggle of young South African adults in the 1970s and 80s was the unjust regime of apartheid, the youth of today confront new struggles in their quest to lead lives of dignity and in pursuit of a better life for themselves, and the next generation.
The country may have made some progress in broadening young people’s access to basic education; but a combination of poor-quality schooling, low rates of tertiary qualification, a changing labour market, and a dearth of bridging opportunities to support young people into their first quality job, has meant millions of young people remain unemployed.
And so continues the intergenerational cycle of inequality.
Post-apartheid South African policy has described the country’s youth both as the “greatest threat to social stability” and as a “demographic dividend”.
The former invokes a “ticking time bomb” of increasingly impatient, disillusioned and economically inactive young people. The latter anticipates the economic potential of a disproportionately large working-age population.
Indeed, young people are viewed with both trepidation and tremendous expectation. These binaries have been symptomatic of political discourse for some time, but are both inaccurate and unhelpful. Importantly, neither of the two categories adequately captures how young people view themselves.
In 2012, the SA Reconciliation Barometer found that the youth were optimistic about their ability to shape political decisions, but sceptical of political parties. The way young people expressed their agency and constraints was nuanced and diverse, which was not reflected in policy discourse.
Acknowledging the “ambiguous agency” of young people – as both vulnerable and inordinately powerful – might shift how we think about them. By investing in webs of support, we can work to safeguard young people’s futures, while also unlocking their full participation in social, civic and economic life.
In a recently released Inclusive Society Institute report called “Understanding Youth Inequality”, researchers and consultants highlight how the right support at critical points – from perinatal, childhood and adolescence, up to early adulthood and the young workforce – can radically alter their trajectory, and that of future generations.
There are several reasons South Africa’s youth continue to struggle to secure employment in an increasingly hostile labour market. Central to these is a failing education system, which continues to churn out a workforce that is largely unprepared for a changing and skills-intensive labour market.
As young people exit the schooling system, there is little accessible or reliable information about how to apply for jobs, to compile a CV, or to access further education and training. They have to navigate the system with little guidance, mentorship, or knowledge-sharing.
Consequently, young people often struggle to find suitable employment and are unaware of how to showcase their unique abilities to potential employers. The job search process is time-consuming, extraordinarily costly, and often fruitless, leaving many feeling discouraged.
Organisations like Harambee Youth Accelerator and Youth Capital are helping to signal areas ripe for intervention. Synthesising some of this evidence, the ISI report identifies four areas essential for work to be done:
Relative to the literature focused on building young people’s aptitude and preparedness for the world of work, there is far less research about employer-driven drivers of youth unemployment in South Africa. This includes employers’ attitudes and practices with respect to hiring young people.
Interventions like the Employment Tax Incentive and including youth employment as a pillar on the B-BBEE scorecard can incentivise employers to hire young people. Hiring practices need to focus on alternative signals of a young person’s capability, broadening our focus beyond educational qualifications and formal work experience, to include young people’s range of experiences and soft skills.
Building mechanisms that connect young people who find themselves lacking inherited social capital is vital.
This requires the focus to be on not only educating and skilling the youth, but also building and facilitating equitable access to networks that can function to bridge the gap between education and employment.
Matching support helps overcome the information gap between young job-seekers and employers by providing documented assessments of skills and capabilities, including education, soft skills, experience and learning potential. This can increase job-seekers' chances of finding work by up to 17% and earning potential by up to 32%.
Matching is also about linking young people to their next opportunity. SAYouth.mobi offers one route to doing this. Through a zero-rated mobile site, it lists for young people available income-generating opportunities that can be applied to online; interview guidance; and CV-building software, without incurring transport or printing costs. It also helps to directly link young job-seekers to the right employers seeking talent, without them wasting time and resources in application processes that bear little fruit.
Promoting equity of access to employment opportunities entails that barriers to labour market participation be broken. A third of South Africans receive social grants. The Covid-19 Social Relief of Distress (SRD) grant added 10 million recipients, bringing the total close to half the country.
The expansion of social welfare is backed by quantitative analysis which suggests a positive impact on poverty alleviation, labour participation, and economic growth. The SRD has alleviated household poverty, increased labour market participation, and helped young people with job searches.
In a 2021 Youth Capital survey of more than 2 000 youth, nearly three in 10 young people said they had used grant money to support their job search.