Young, black, jobless? Here’s what to do

2014-09-21 15:00

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A Stats SA survey out this week showed that skills acquisition has largely stalled for young people, fuelling a crisis of work. The author has some ideas.

Last week, the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection (Mistra), the National Planning Commission and Yellowwoods, the investment holding company of several businesses in the financial services sector, convened a conference at Spier Wine Farm in Stellenbosch to drill deeper into practical programmes to speed up the absorption of young people into economic activity.

More than 200 union, business, academic, civil service and political leaders took part.

The detail of the outcome is important because it adds to the pool of ideas contained in, among other things, the National Development Plan (NDP), the Youth Employment Accord and programmes of the National Youth Development Agency. But the event should inspire a new confidence from other perspectives as well.

Firstly, the very composition of the gathering sends a message that mini-compacts are possible to attend to the challenges the country faces. While the NDP calls for a social compact to attain Vision 2030, building blocks like these will impel the forging of such a compact.

Secondly, the conference was organised around specific themes that relate to the experiences of young people. Critical among these is that employment is more than paid-for work.

It enables social integration and allows young people to progress to independent adulthood. Inversely, long-term unemployment can create negative social circumstances in communities, especially among young people who feel both disconnected and rejected, undermining the self-esteem required for them to experience their rites of passage in their communities.

Thirdly, case studies of practical programmes to address this mismatch were examined. One such experience is the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator that seeks to address this discrepancy as it applies to youth who have passed matric.

Opportunities in infrastructure, information technology, the services sector and small and micro enterprises, among other areas, were examined to identify the demand-supply mismatch.

Harambee and McKinsey estimate that the number of jobs currently available in South Africa stands at about 1.25?million, while the number of unemployed young people is at 3.5?million. As participants at the conference agreed, innovative approaches are required to ensure that the employment ecosystem works for both the unemployed and the prospective employers.

Among these approaches is the issue of social networks that connect young people to opportunities. Only 12% of jobs are advertised, while the overwhelming majority are filled through social networks.

Further, employers complain that when young people access these opportunities, many are not “work ready” and so additional training and cultural and psychological preparation is required. Huge expenses are incurred to sustain the job, or there is a parting of ways after a few months – at huge cost to employer and employee alike.

Another observation from these practical programmes is that a good mark in mathematics can be even more important than a matric certificate. This because the most active employment sectors currently are retail, finance and business services.

Harambee and other such initiatives seek to bridge this divide before the young person enters the work environment. For instance, simply improving the numeracy level of a young jobseeker can be a game-changer in accessing such opportunities as being a supermarket teller.

All this speaks to the fact that medium-term tasks should be complemented by immediate practical measures to reduce the employment barriers for young people, and to render the task of taking on new workers less stressful for employers.

With regard to education, participants at the conference agreed that South Africa needs to attend more urgently to the ironic fact that poor teaching and learning happen precisely in poor communities.

This perpetuates the reproduction of poverty, with its racial, gender and rural dimensions. The question is whether the countless programmes and projects to improve educational outcomes are being implemented. And the answer lies not only with government, but with teachers and their unions, parents, and communities.

Of course, supply-side measures such as improved education should go along with the actual creation of job opportunities. Otherwise, the country will merely succeed in raising the educational level of the unemployed. Experience during the past decade has shown that this can be done – with direct benefits for young people.

For instance, during the years of high economic growth, between 2002 and 2008, the rate of unemployment among those aged between 25 and 34 was reduced from 34% to 26%.

South Africa, like the rest of Africa, is experiencing a youth bulge that can be a major advantage for any country’s development path. But for this to be turned into a demographic dividend, young people must be absorbed into economic activity. Discussions at the Spier conference showed that these and other problems can be tackled, if there is cooperation among all the role-players.

Critical, though, is that accords, plans, agreements and programmes should be implemented, and their effectiveness should be assessed continuously.

In the past 20 years, the situation has only gone from bad to worse for SA’s youth. Picture: Gallo Images

Eight things that need to happen to accelerate youth employment

1 South Africa’s education system needs to be fixed urgently, especially when it comes to mathematics. Research by consulting firm McKinsey conducted for the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator shows that only 13% of pupils pass Grade 9 maths, making the final 77% matric pass rate irrelevant.

This is problematic because shortcomings in maths materially affect our potential economic growth. That said, it has been shown that fluid intelligence, which is the foundation of learning potential, can overcome poor teaching, which is the main cause of the poor academic records of young people.

Assessing fluid intelligence as a predictor of a person’s capacity to acquire new skills is far more meaningful than assessing a largely irrelevant educational record.

2 Because they are wary of taking a risk with new, poorly educated entrants, employers tend to hire highly qualified workers, pushing up wages in positions that should be filled by entry-level workers. This “hiring inflation” leads to waste. Any investment in education must be tied to growth projections so people are employed and skills are built that will lead to real economic and employment growth.

3 Entrepreneurship must take its place more firmly in the economic mix. The disparity between supply of jobs and demand for jobs dictates that some young people are going to have to make their own careers and create their own jobs. Because of this, basic entrepreneurial and business management skills should be introduced into school curriculums.

4 Employers need to start taking a chance on young people: they are not as risky to employ as business owners and leaders perceive them to be and there are ways to mitigate perceived risks, not least by understanding the environment in which they grew up, and clearly defining the education, behavioural and skills gaps that need to be bridged.

5 South Africa’s business psyche needs to change and a new normal is needed. Hiring young people sometimes means taking a slower approach to initiating them into the work environment. If the right investments are made from the outset, there will be long-term results, including lower churn, higher productivity and progression.

6 Innovative ways to deliver the National Development Plan must be found, including growth, jobs, partnerships, internships and trialships. Solving the youth unemployment crisis doesn’t necessarily mean providing thousands of new jobs in one company; it can also be done on

a smaller scale, including encouraging staff and contacts to understand the problem.

7 Cross-sectoral collaboration is required to drive employment outside of metropolitan areas. According to research from McKinsey, one in two young people are employed in the big metropolitan areas. In more remote areas, mining and infrastructure developments help to create employment; more secondary sector activity, such as light manufacturing, would also create jobs.

8 All stakeholders must understand the long-term negative effect of shrugging their shoulders, walking away and doing nothing to help solve the youth unemployment crisis. Participation is a requirement.

Netshitenzhe is the executive director of Mistra

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