OPINION | Youth unemployment, barriers to labour market and the silent players

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A jobs protest in the North West.
A jobs protest in the North West.
Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd

Often young people who are successful in work readiness programmes have the backing of silent partners, writes Gontse M. Adeniran.


I recently received a text from Manke (not her real name), a previous student who participated in one of our work readiness training programmes. The first words in her text were "Thank you", before the usual greetings. She had just been made supervisor and was reflecting on some of the lessons she took from our interactions in class in preparation for the workplace.

Her message was refreshing despite the setbacks and current statistics on youth unemployment.

Stats SA recently published figures which showed reduced rates of employment by 2.2 million, compared to the first quarter of 2020.

Without getting into the technicalities of narrow and expanded definitions of unemployment, the current official rate of unemployment – 30.1% (youth between the ages of 15-24 accounts for 63.3%) – does not include discouraged work seekers.

This population is defined as those who were unemployed during the survey period, wanted and were available to work or start a business, but did not take active steps to find work. But given restrictions related to Covid-19, many people were not available for work.

The bottom line for South Africa's challenge of youth unemployment is that, in light of Covid-19 and the current economic strains worldwide, it will probably get worse before it gets better.

Our responses to this dilemma require thinking out of the box and moving away from pointing fingers. I am a firm believer in the principle of "We the People", where development challenges are resolved collectively. And, I allow for this notion to be interrogated every now and then.

READ | Opinion: Inequality in SA and beyond: A peek behind the curtain

Back to Manke, after my brief conversation with her, I started remembering certain groups of young people who went through the same Youth Employment Programmes (YEP) but underperformed.

I thought about how I, as a business owner today, probably would not take on the risk of employing those who struggled with the YEP. This is a very hard pill for me to swallow because I am someone who has been allowed into these young people's lives and I have somehow created a rapport with all the participants in one way or another.

The most unfortunate part of it is that my reasons for me not considering these young people for employment have to do with things that can be changed or improved. Things like showing commitment to the programme; being punctual; and pushing oneself to learn so one can improve, etc.

I have found that a key ingredient among successful people is their ability to adapt and reinvent themselves. The labour markets can be very unforgiving. It's my belief that it is difficult for some young people to grasp this in the short one to two weeks of training.

Need for other players

Where are the other players?

It is clear that the undesirable behaviours of some youth work seekers are flourishing somewhere in society. Those who fall through the cracks are the ones that need the most help. It is for this very reason that unemployment should not be parked or reserved as a priority for the Presidency or the Department of Labour and Employment alone.

Let's look at the transition of young people from schools to Post-Secondary Education and Training (PSET) to the labour market.

A range of institutions within the social economy play important roles.

Take Manke, for example, raised by a single parent staying with extended family. Her upbringing had an impact on her self-esteem: how well she pushed herself through school; how she carried herself with people in authority. etc. The investment her mother makes for her well-being, with hopes that one day she will be an independent young woman.

As she experiences life, some values will be tested and fizzle off. By the time she completes matric and tries to enter the labour market, job application outcomes give her an idea that she is not quite ready for the workplace. She decides to enrol for a Youth Employment Programme, where she is given the space to interrogate her values, world views and behaviour towards certain things. Manke opens herself up to the process.

Every day, after her training, she initiates conversations with herself and her family on the applications of what she learnt in class. Her supportive mother continues to contribute and provide her with transport or other resources so that she may complete the programme well. The end result: she completes the programme successfully and is recommended for employment – her "silent players" all the while assisting her to succeed in gaining employment.

My point here is this – within the transitions of youth to the labour market there is a range of key role players who need to be recognised.

READ | Moeletsi Mbeki: Covid-19 and the economy: Bringing SA to the periphery

Evidence from policy reviews show that there are efforts to attract the private sector to engage in the youth unemployment debacle – although there is slow progress in the uptake of youth labour.

A 2018 study by Professor Lauren Graham on what drives youth unemployment discusses the cost burden of work seeking and how some young people are financially supported by their families. I believe the role of the family extends beyond financial support. It ranges from that to providing a foundation for the market readiness of young people. Isn't it time families spoke too?

As someone who is passionate about socio-economic issues such as youth unemployment, I bask in the glory of such testimonies involving successful YEPs and active labour market strategies. However, I am troubled by those who underperform in employment programmes and who drift off into the silent spaces of society.

 - Gontse M. Adeniran is an emerging scholar doing her Mphil Social Policy and Development. 

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