Youth unemployment: No more lip service

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With 20 million young people in South Africa, we have the energy and talent to transform our country, yet you could fill up FNB Stadium 80 times with those youngsters who are neither receiving education, training nor employment. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi
With 20 million young people in South Africa, we have the energy and talent to transform our country, yet you could fill up FNB Stadium 80 times with those youngsters who are neither receiving education, training nor employment. Picture: Mpumelelo Buthelezi

Last week, we came across a tweet that summed up the despondence of a generation.

It read: “I once attended a youth dialogue with government officials. We listened to speeches by old people for 2.5 hours. Then they took three comments from attendees, totalling five minutes of the entire event. They probably marked it somewhere official saying that they ‘had engaged’ with the youth.”

With 20 million young people in South Africa, we have the energy and talent to transform our country, yet you could fill up FNB Stadium 80 times with those youngsters who are neither receiving education, training nor employment.

The youth unemployment rate for the last quarter of last year was at 58.1% – a dire illustration of the potential that is being wasted.

At the National Youth Development Agency dialogue ahead of Thursday’s state of the nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa confirmed that youth unemployment was a serious political and financial crisis.

While we look forward to the president unveiling the inner workings of the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention plan, we need to recognise that this issue affects –and currently defines – an entire generation of young people.

You could fill up FNB Stadium 80 times with those youngsters who are neither receiving education, training nor employment

One would expect that young people would be actively engaged in conversations on ways to tackle unemployment, however, rather than being at the centre of discussions, young people are far too often on the periphery and sometimes their insights are dismissed altogether.

As one young person stated in last week’s Twitter thread: “In these official spaces, it’s hard to be heard, even when being assertive. We’re labelled as disrespectful and not knowing our place. I have experienced this both at community and state level. Sometimes the culture of ‘respecting your elders’ is used as a means to silence us.”

This chasm between decision-makers and young people is one of the reasons our initiative exists.

Youth Capital is a long-term campaign that amplifies the voices and ideas of young people, and frames key priorities within conversations around youth unemployment with the aim of ensuring that every young person has the skills and opportunities to get their first decent job.

When the campaign launched in 2018, we spent months travelling around five provinces – the Eastern Cape, the Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape – speaking to almost 400 young people to hear their views and experiences of unemployment.

Despite the diversity across these provinces, several key challenges were echoed again and again – a lack of access to education and employment opportunities, a lack of social capital and networks to connect them to resources and a lack of opportunities, with the burden of the high cost of job-seeking, including data and transport costs, at once underlying and exacerbating each of these challenges.

WHY PUT YOUNG PEOPLE AT THE CENTRE?

National crises can only be tackled when there is a cohesive agenda that everybody can support with big or small actions.

Unlike other pressing challenges, youth unemployment lacks such a plan of action – one that represents all stakeholders involved.

Discussions on youth unemployment so far haven’t been inclusive, and the path to change has been unclear.

In addition to providing young people with a platform and the tools to amplify their voices, Youth Capital has combined the extensive research on youth unemployment with the lived experiences and viewpoints of young people to define three integrated areas of action: education, transitions and jobs.

These provide the foundation of an action-oriented national agenda that can be used by decision-makers, stakeholders, the private sector and young people themselves to put forward innovative solutions.

For example, when we look at basic and tertiary education, we need to ensure that young people are given financial, social and emotional support throughout their journey in school.

Critically, data tracking needs to be improved so that pupils who are struggling can be identified early on so that they can be supported before they start to disengage.

Because employers use qualifications as a measure of skill, every person who completes a qualification needs to have a certificate to show for it.

Even though withholding certificates is against the law, there have been many reports of schools, colleges and universities withholding certificates from students who have outstanding fees or documents.

The transition between education and employment – when young people find themselves in the “in-between stage” – is a particularly vulnerable time for youngsters.

By decreasing the cost of job-seeking and helping young people to establish important connections with other young people across South Africa and with the world of work, we can help them develop their social capital.

Lastly, we need to work with both employees and employers to ensure that, while jobseekers understand their values, employers have the ability to value jobseekers beyond educational qualifications.

Officials use the youth as a means to an end – a quorum, otherwise we don’t really matter

Recent research by Harambe shows the impact of providing an unemployed young person with information about their full skill set – not just their educational qualifications, but also their soft skills, strengths and learning potential.

When jobseekers are given a summary report to share with potential employers, their chances of finding work improve by up to 17% and their earning potential increases by up to 32%.

Jobs form the last piece of the youth unemployment puzzle, so we need to make sure that all work experience in the formal and informal sectors is valued, and that barriers facing first-time jobseekers are removed by making Sector Education and Training Authority and Employment Tax Incentive funds available, and ensuring that work in public employment schemes becomes a stepping stone towards a career.

“Officials use the youth as a means to an end – a quorum, otherwise we don’t really matter,” read another tweet in the above-mentioned Twitter thread.

To tackle youth unemployment, we need to meaningfully come together around a concrete agenda to agree on common goals (aside from the figure of 2 million jobs in 10 years) and directions, starting by seeing young people in urban and rural areas as part of the solution, not the problem.

The president echoed this during the National Youth Development Agency dialogue last week when he said: “Nothing about us, without us.”

Let’s translate these words into action, together.

Kristal Duncan-Williams is the project leader of the DG Murray Trust’s Youth Capital campaign, and Clotilde Angelucci is a communication and network strategist


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