SA youth overcome unemployment odds

2013-06-16 14:00

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Low skills, and failures of the education system and the private and public sectors, will have social and economic consequences

Thirty-seven years ago today, South Africa’s youth took to the streets in a fight against an unfair education system. Today, nearly half of the nation’s young people take to the streets to look for jobs.

According to official statistics, South Africa has the highest long-term youth unemployment rate among medium-income nations, with those between the ages of 15 and 24 accounting for 48.2% of those unemployed.

This figure, according to Stats SA’s 2012 third-quarter Labour Force Survey, is just shy of double the national overall unemployment figure of 25%. And of the nation’s 9 million young people aged between 15 and 34, about 3.2 million were unemployed and looking for work last year.

Adcorp’s labour market analyst, Loane Sharp, estimates that the youth unemployment rate rises to a staggering 54% when taking into account those who have lost hope of finding employment.

Sharp echoed many experts who have repeatedly warned that unless the economy grows at a rate of more than 4% a year – above its current average yearly growth rate of 3.5% since 1994 – employing all those who leave high school and university will not be possible.

To make substantial inroads into the youth unemployment problem, the economy needs to grow faster than a seemingly impossible 9% a year.

“The problem of unemployment is a problem of insufficient economic growth. Having said that, economic growth alone will not ensure jobs. People need to have the right skills for the sectors of the economy that are expanding, which are typically the tertiary sectors such as finance, trade, communication and transport,” said Sharp.

But this “ticking time bomb” of youth unemployment, as trade union Cosatu’s general secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has described it, may be averted by the fact that many youngsters are involved in informal work that is not reported to authorities, says Sharp.

“Unfortunately, we don’t know how many people, particularly youth, are involved in activities that are not reported to the authorities, such as child-minding, microbrewing, transport of commuters and goods, beauty and personal care and other activities that occur in South African townships,” says Sharp.

“If we include these people, the unemployment rate is thought to be much lower, around 10.7%.”

The youth unemployment index, a recently launched incentive to encourage the private sector to employ more young people, has warned that growing unemployment among South Africa’s youth is an issue that has far-reaching social and economical consequences for the nation.

The index is echoed by findings of a study by the Development Bank of Southern Africa’s development planning division, titled Towards a Youth Unemployment Strategy in SA, which warned that South Africa could not “sustain the pattern of youth unemployment that has characterised the democratic period”.

“Neither can young people continue to leave the formal education system with no hope of attaining an income, dignity and self-worth through employment,” said the study, authored by 29 industry leaders from various organisations including the Treasury, the National Youth Development Agency and Business Unity SA.

Like many other research findings, the study laments the nation’s ailing education system as the main impediment because the school system “fails to equip young people with basic literacy, numeracy, problem-solving skills, and a work ethic and discipline”.

Sharp also pointed to the failures of the education system as a major sticking point, while complaints about a skills shortage no longer hold water.

He said: “There are many government failures in the labour market. The crisis in government education is largely a function of unionisation among teachers, who have succeeded in banishing inspectors from classrooms and who have succeeded in banishing performance appraisals.

“The skills shortage concept is now growing tired. Since 1995, we have been hearing that upskilling the population will dramatically reduce unemployment. Yet despite the national skills fund, the proposed youth-wage subsidy, the jobs fund, the revitalisation of Further Education and Training (FET) colleges and other measures at a cost of tens of billions of rands, we continue to sit with a low-skilled workforce.

“Although the skills shortage is real, government’s attempts to address the shortage have been total failures. FET colleges, for example, are so dysfunctional that a person has a higher chance of finding work without an FET qualification.”

While South Africa’s young population presents a major labour headache, this can and should be turned into an economic asset, said Dick Forslund, economist and researcher at the leftist Alternative Information and Development Centre.

The National Development Plan has also warned that youth unemployment could become a major source for “destabilisation” if it continues unabated.

Forslund believes that both the private and public sectors are not playing their part in employing young people.

He said the government should lead by ensuring that all labour-intensive activities, such as building schools, roads, hospitals, food production, and water and clean-up projects are youth-based.

Although statistics show that employers prefer hiring young people because they are cheaper, faster learners and less unionised employers were also reluctant to expand their businesses because of low economic growth, which hampered demand for new workers, said Forslund.

“There needs to be a massive effort to organise public jobs, but don’t put them out on tender. Try to rebuild the local capacity of the state,” he said.

“The private building industry is ripping off the local state as we speak.”

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