by Thalia Holmes and Kevin Khumalo

Tackling youth unemployment head-on

Youth unemployment is arguably the single biggest challenge facing South Africa

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Youth unemployment is arguably the single biggest challenge facing South Africa, with the numbers of school leavers outstripping the availability of jobs, causing frustration and social issues for many youths

It is essential that we promote progressive enterprise development strategies and facilitate the creation of smaller start-ups to take some of the burden off traditional systems of employment and job creation. We can no longer just rely on the state to provide jobs, a collaborative effort is needed. It is also essential that more employment is created in poorer areas so people don’t have to spend large amounts of money on transportation.

If you look at the United States, billions of dollars are pumped into new start-ups, while in South Africa, we have a far smaller venture capital market to pool resources from. South Africans are generally risk-averse, with many of the older generation preferring to work for an employer rather than starting their own company or being a consultant.

However, the current crop of 20-somethings entering the job market; the Millennials look at the world differently and want more from their working experience. The time is ripe to take advantage of this fresh wave of ‘out of the box’ thinking that tech-savvy Millennials bring to the table.

One such organisation, Youth Employment Service (YES) South Africa is tackling youth unemployment and skills development head-on in less advantaged areas by collectively developing a national plan to build economic pathways for black youth. YES is a collaborative economic enabler led by business, fully supported by the government and labour, with the direct backing of President Cyril Ramaphosa. The dynamic NGO, which is tasked with the job of bridging the gap between business, the government and labour, is led by Tashmia Ismail-Saville.

After her excellent performance as a student on the GIBS Business School MBA, she joined the business school’s staff and made a significant contribution before joining YES last year as the CEO.

Youth employment: what are some of the challenges facing young South Africans who are experiencing high unemployment rates?

Many youths are despondent. In their communities, the exception is to be employed and the norm is to be unemployed. The sheer number—six million young people who are jobless—makes the problem feel unscalable, they feel let down and abandoned by the system and many feel trapped and helpless in their economic circumstances. More than 38% of youth (ages 18 to 34) are unemployed in South Africa, according to Stats SA. The current economic climate, automation, the Fourth Industrial Revolution and industrial concentration (more than 90% of our economic activity takes place in Gauteng) mean that the supply of jobs in South Africa far outstrips the demand. They need a new narrative, growth mindset and opportunities closer to where they are in order to catalyse growth and opportunities.

What is your vision for a national plan to build economic pathways for black youth?

Our vision is to reshape the future of South Africa’s economy by unlocking new economic pathways for the millions of youth currently stuck, redirecting investment and creating job-rich value chains where few to no jobs currently exist. At the same time, we’re aiming to bring jobs closer to home for aspirant workers. We’re starting off by creating as many one-year job opportunities for our youth as possible through driving a strong corporate and broad business focus, by getting Business SA to see youth unemployment as a problem we all need to own and fix. Research shows that some experience, evidenced in a CV and a reference letter, will increase female participants’ chances for job interviews. Furthermore, their employment rate doubles after three months, thus, fully closing the gender employment gap. Getting business, wherever possible, to offer this life-changing first chance is the YES priority and what we are driving towards.

In order for this movement to work, we need absolutely everybody to catch and own the vision. We need corporates to provide job opportunities and we need SMMEs to do the same. If every corporate, hairdresser, shop owner and entrepreneur undertook to create one real job opportunity for a youth, we could turn our economy around.

Now, with the recent release of the gazette on YES, there’s a business imperative to get involved as well. Participating companies can climb up one or even two entire levels on the B-BBEE scorecard if they meet targets and prerequisites.

What are some of the initiatives that the YES4Youth programme has rolled out and what are plans for the future?

One of our focus areas is on building small businesses, creating market access, the adoption of technology and better business practice to increase their output. This is what will allow the two-person stall to grow to eight. The process is: identify value chains and look for market access first. After that’s been found, we build training centres and SMMEs to host youth jobs. Our YES hubs have been built for this purpose. They’re placed in local communities as a node to expand all sorts of job-facilitating activities. They are multi-functional, from training and small business support to meeting local infrastructure and tech needs, but most importantly, they are the key to unlocking local jobs in higher value-add economic chains. Small business growth is the link as well as the magic ingredient to drive jobs.

For example, we are running a hydroponics farm from our Tembisa hub to train consumers how to become producers. We’ve been in discussions with the Swiss to run Swiss hospitality apprenticeship programmes. Together with multinational companies in Mpumalanga, we’re unlocking the wildlife economy in a province with an unemployment rate of 32%.

As we build our models, we try to make sure the architectural innovation is right: we rearrange the pieces to fit the context and the way the world has moved, employing leapfrog tech to disrupt the old way. We put a technological spin on old industries to realise the benefits of the sectors in a way that we couldn’t before. From open-field farming with gumboots and a rain dance to digitally run hydroponics units, with increased nutritional content, quality and yield.

What are some of the key sectors that YES are looking to for employment opportunities?

At the moment, YES is working in the following spaces, and looking to overlay YES hubs in communities, which drive combinations of these:

  • Agri and agri-processing
  • Automotive
  • Construction
  • Healthcare
  • Green energy
  • Tourism and hospitality
  • Digital
  • Clothing and textile

What are the keys to successfully achieving your targets of providing one million youth with job opportunities?

I think the first factor is having an internal YES team that understands just how important this job is. We are delivering to a group of people who have been marginalised and neglected. It’s important to have a completely dedicated and purpose-driven team with a joint understanding that more disappointment is inconceivable to us.

Keys to securing this are our implementation partners and commitment from business. The economy is driven through business: it creates jobs and pays taxes. We need to get business to see the big picture and realise that anybody with privilege has the mandate to get involved in job creation.

The third aspect is the need to do things differently. Our stakeholders need to allow us to do things in new ways—more of the same with the same institutions won’t cut it. Enable disruption of the current system or we will never get close to that target.

There is always a need for sound leadership role models. How best can the narrative be changed towards positive leadership types?

I think it’s about role modelling. Leadership that is committed, puts in the hours—actually walking the talk—is the only way to change the narrative. Not just do as I say, do as I do. Roll up your sleeves and do, stop talking.

For you, what does sound leadership entail and how do you get the best out of those working around you?

It starts with hiring right. Hire people who are self-motivated and self-directed. Recruit people who buy into the vision and mission of the organisation over and above their own agenda. At YES, there are such high stakes involved—it’s such an important cause, that hiring people looking for an ordinary job doesn’t work, each person needs to exhibit their own leadership capabilities and feed that energy to the team. YES employees must want to get the best out of themselves because 100% dedication to a cause outside yourself is what our youth deserve and need.

As we celebrate Education Month in November, for you, what are some of the areas that could be improved upon in our education system?

We need more entrepreneurship skills and economic literacy to be taught at a school level, so that when teenagers leave the structure of schools, they have better skills to build their own pathways and aren’t waiting for the world to bring opportunities to them.

We could learn from the German/Swiss schooling system, which requires students to interview for apprenticeships while still at high school. This exposes kids to market realities and requirements at an early stage, so that when they leave school, they’re already sensitised to what the market demands and where opportunity exists. Early childhood development (ECD) training has massive returns as it is such an important age for children to reap lifetime developmental rewards, that we must support programmes to drive this.

How are AI and the Fourth Industrial Revolution changing the way people approach education, skills developments and impacts on labour and re-skilling?

4IR is changing the job market in many interesting ways. The idea of lifetime employment is becoming less common and many jobs at the top end are being disintermediated by technology in various forms. Interestingly, on the community- and consumer-facing front, 4IR is opening many new opportunities for jobs, which didn’t exist before.

Today, gig jobs, piece jobs or micro jobs are all ways in which youth break their way into the market via small opportunities on a pay-as-you-go basis. Your first job doesn’t have to be your job for life. It’s about bite-size opportunities providing a softer entry into the workspace.

The 4IR also allows us virtual highways that allow spatially isolated communities access. For example, we’ve just opened our YES call centre in Hazyview near Bushbuckridge with Good Work Foundation (GWF). The YES youth working there will answer queries from all over the country, but they will be sitting in all the way in Bushbuckridge, which is known for its extremely high female unemployment rate. There now exists a plethora of jobs that we could not imagine before, and the capex required is the cost of a phone and data, barriers to entry have dropped. Mobile phones and networks have democratised economic opportunity in beautiful ways. 

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