Sought-after skills: Umuzi Academy co-director Andrew Levy, student Thorne Ndlovu, academy’s co-director Gilbert Pooley, and students Mo Matli and Bukelwa Moerane with some of the tools of the trades taught at the training centre. Umuzi says it equips youths with in-demand high level skills, unlike government’s YES project. Picture: LESLEY STONES
Sought-after skills: Umuzi Academy co-director Andrew Levy, student Thorne Ndlovu, academy’s co-director Gilbert Pooley, and students Mo Matli and Bukelwa Moerane with some of the tools of the trades taught at the training centre. Umuzi says it equips youths with in-demand high level skills, unlike government’s YES project. Picture: LESLEY STONES

The new Youth Employment Service (YES) scheme, designed to create a million paid internships, wastes money by feeding people into low-skilled, dead-end jobs, the founders of the successful Umuzi Academy in Johannesburg argue.

The YES campaign launched last month by President Cyril Ramaphosa will give participants a year of work to enhance their CV but it won’t give them skills to progress up the career ladder, and companies cannot absorb all those low-grade workers, says Umuzi co-director Gilbert Pooley.

Pooley and his lifelong friend Andrew Levy have been running the Umuzi Training Centre for four years, qualifying students as workplace-ready graphic designers, advertising and marketing specialists, photographers and, more recently, as data analysts and computer coders for the technology and financial services sectors.

It is funded by companies that offer work experience placements and that have provided 80% of the graduates with full-time jobs. About 16 advertising agencies support the centre through their skills development budgets, and some tech companies are signing up since Umuzi branched out to teach coding and data analysis.

Those skills are far more relevant for the jobs of the future than the menial jobs the YES campaign will produce, says Pooley. "One of the big mistakes SA is making is to invest in low-skilled jobs and underinvest in high-skilled jobs.

"YES is an effort by government, big business and labour to address youth unemployment by giving them paid internships, but in five to 10 years the kind of low-value jobs YES will expose them to won’t even exist.

"It’s … a travesty to invest in programmes that train for low-grade jobs when we have proven we can take that money and invest it in getting people into high-value career paths. The companies that support us are building a talent pipeline relevant to their business, focused on the jobs of the future."

The recruits attend Umuzi in downtown Johannesburg five days a week from 9am-5pm to mimic a real working environment. They are paid a monthly stipend, and spend three months learning enough to qualify for a national certificate in their chosen course. They then spend six months in a production team to hone their new skills before embarking on three months of work experience with a sponsoring company.

"The magic measurement is how many young people get a job offer at the end of the programme — and it’s more than 80%," says Levy.

After their year’s training, they are encouraged to drop in at any time to reconnect and serve as role models and mentors for current recruits. Many live above the centre, in Madison Street’s "affordable living" flats.

"About 35% of our recruits live in the building, because the closer you are to work the more time you have and it cuts out the barrier to entry of high transport costs," says Levy.

Roughly 70% of the centre’s recruits are students who dropped out of university, not because they didn’t have the skill or commitment to study, but because they couldn’t afford the fees. That failure in the education system — almost half of SA’s university students drop out before graduating — burdens them with large debts and no qualifications, which means that employers won’t touch them.

"If we had a clinic where 50% of all the patients died we’d close it down, while the University of Cape Town and others have a drop-out rate of 50%, yet we still revere [them[," Pooley says.

Thorne Ndlovu, 26, was doing well in his multimedia course at Johannesburg University but dropped out because of the fees.

Now he is learning animation and videography at Umuzi and is interviewing for work experience as an animator at production studio Fort.

Mo Matli, 24, earned a diploma in photography but she won’t receive the certificate until she pays off her fees. Her photography course didn’t cover videography, which is crucial for tomorrow’s photography-orientated careers, so she joined Umuzi to gain those skills. She wants to become an exhibiting artist, filming social injustice "and trying to change physical insecurities one video at a time".

Bukelwa Moerane is studying coding and data science on Umuzi’s newest course. She previously ran a small digital marketing company and is now focusing on the psychology of marketing. "I’m really good at noticing patterns in data and figuring out what the data is saying to you to make sense of customer behaviour," she says.

Levy and Pooley have been friends since junior school and shared a flat at the University of Cape Town.

The idea for Umuzi began when they helped another friend conduct some photography workshops in the townships. They realised that children with creative rather than academic talents were faring badly at school, where the emphasis was on maths and science. "They were quite negative about their future prospects, and the idea of an intervention to help them connect with high-value careers in the creative space was born," says Pooley.

Levy had become a private banker at Investec, and in 2014 he persuaded the company to channel its skills development budget into training people as photographers and graphic designers. Initially they outsourced the courses to an established training institute, but that old-style training had too much theory and too little practice.

The pair brought the training in-house, got accredited as a training centre and began hiring managers from the relevant industries. About 30 full-time managers now run the training, with students working on real products like creating webpage content and videos.

Candidates apply through the Umuzi.org website by taking an online test to assess their aptitude. Of 400 who applied in the most recent recruitment round, 70 were invited to a boot camp for on-the-job assessment, and 42 were accepted.

"We turned away a large number of very talented people, so we need to find more companies to invest their skills development money in these high-value jobs," says Levy.

So far 300 young people have graduated at Umuzi, with 120 currently being trained.

The short-term aim is 300 graduates a year.

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