YOUTH unemployment is a time bomb and "the greatest risk to social stability in SA", according to the National Planning Commission’s diagnostic report released in 2011. Yet, while there has been considerable debate on the extent, nature and implications of youth unemployment, there appears to be little concerted action to address it.

The economy has failed to keep up with the growth of the labour force and has not invested sufficiently in human development. Unemployment, especially among young people, continues to grow.

Chronic unemployment is compounded by the absence of up-skilling opportunities and is leading to widespread frustration and dissatisfaction — especially among the under-educated, unqualified and unemployed youth. Combined with rocketing living costs, this is fuelling drug and alcohol abuse, gang-related crime and violence — especially in deprived communities.

If the present situation persists, a young person who fails to get a job by the age of 24 is unlikely to ever get full-time formal employment.

According to Statistics SA’s Labour Force Survey, 40% of unemployed youth have been jobless for longer than three years and almost 60% of these have never had a job. Statistics SA found that more than 60% of these youngsters have no matric qualification. It is no surprise then that close to 60% of young people are unemployed.

With little focus on employability in the education system, qualified but unemployable students who are not "fit for purpose" are being produced — while employers complain of a substantial skills shortage. This is compounded by graduates stepping down into lower level employment and by increasing numbers of migrant workers who are often better qualified and highly motivated to work for lower wages.

The key to addressing this is breaking the cycle of unemployment and deprivation in communities and ensuring that business is at the very heart of the process. We should examine best practice throughout the world to understand what has worked and how it has worked. India, for example, has seen an explosion of employment opportunities — driven by substantial business growth; the single-minded determination of all politicians to position the country as a major force on the international stage; and using this growth to tackle inequality and poverty.

In the UK a charity, Transforming a Generation (TAG), raised R225m from the government and business to tackle youth unemployment. It recruited 2,000 young, long-term unemployed people who were given a chance to gain a qualification and learn "soft" life skills and the skills necessary to secure a job, retain it and progress within the work environment.

Its success rate was impressive, with 60% of students going on to full-time, paid employment and a fair number enrolling in higher education.

The programme was developed with employers in the health and fitness sector with the sole aim of filling a significant skills gap and developing a "fit for purpose" army of skilled exercise professionals.

A six-month programme was launched within an affected community. The greatest asset was that the TAG programme and its brand were presented as being "cool", thus appealing to the youth.

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CONVENTIONAL recruitment strategies were inappropriate as this community was unaccustomed to writing CVs and unschooled in the techniques of job interviews. The recruitment was undertaken by community leaders and NGOs chosen for their understanding of the candidates’ issues and backgrounds.

Every student signed a contract of commitment to the programme with rigorous standards of conduct required. They received a 12-month personal development plan to help their migration to employment. They also had a community-based mentor responsible for their psychological, emotional and professional welfare.

The training programme was developed with employers who knew which personal and professional qualities they wanted. It had the correct combination of personal, professional and cultural skills-sets, enabling students to help tackle inactivity and obesity, which have been fuelling a growing public health crisis in the UK. It also tackled head-on the causes of poverty, such as long-term unemployment, drugs, alcohol and street violence by gangs of disaffected youth.

The first three months focused on skills training with accredited qualification, employability and citizenship skills. This included skills such as time-keeping, professional attitude, team-work and presentation skills.

The second three months roped in local commercial and noncommercial partners identified to help the students secure work placements with potential employers and community projects.

The partners and employers pledged to provide structured and managed work experience followed by apprenticeship programmes leading to jobs. The work placement programme was, in effect, an extended three-month job interview. At every stage students were paid.

TAG was successful as an intervention strategy designed to improve the economic, social, health and well-being prospects of unemployed youth — permanently — while also benefiting the communities they were drawn from and the communities in which they worked. Above all, this was about ensuring that young people got jobs.

But the programme also delivered returns for the UK government’s investment in the economic, employment, health and cultural agendas. Statistics showed that there were financial returns on the investment provided, with those employed paying taxes and spending money while avoiding anti-social activities which cost society financially and emotionally.

What might the long-term strategy for SA look like? What is needed is a national strategy that puts, at its heart, a five-year target of getting 1-million young people into full-time employment. It should be based on a national apprenticeship programme designed to ease young people into jobs.

To achieve this a national task force should be established, led by youth leaders, business and the government with funding allocated for a large pilot — along the TAG model lines, in a high unemployment area with a team recruited to deliver the pilot.

Funding would provide payment to all students for the six months of their contract, linked to tight performance criteria for both the deliverers and the students.

A business incentive scheme should be developed in line with black economic empowerment and in co-operation with businesses in the pilot catchment area, which would participate and help to develop a brand and launch plan.

Community leaders must be at the heart of the scheme and part of a local mentoring group that includes retired professionals. Local training providers should be recruited to develop the programme with employers and a series of "train the trainer" programmes developed at community level.

Where best practice models exist, these should be partnered with to expand their reach and when there is a national event — such as the Commonwealth Games — the programme can be linked to such an event as an energiser.

Over the longer term, SA could consider some more fundamental changes that could change the landscape of unemployment-based inequality forever.

Schools could ensure that their curriculum includes employability skills and careers advice from Grade 8 and provide career advisers, links with local employers and working parents. All school students could participate in work experience from Grade 10 once a year for one week to help prepare them for work.

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COLLEGES and universities could increase their focus on work-based apprenticeships and employability skills, and develop programmes with local businesses to provide a soft skills programme to support students’ employability, develop work experience programmes and get the government and employers to fund their development.

A programme of incentives should be developed for organisations that place graduates in long-term employment and lecturers could commit to spending a proportion of their time engaging with local business and employers.

Entrepreneurial programmes such as the Virgin Foundation should be studied and further developed to be delivered in local communities. Skills training providers are a critical component to the success of an unemployment-tackling strategy and should be involved from day one.

Businesses could be encouraged to invest in providing work experience and there should be financial incentives for employers. For growing businesses, there should be an incentive scheme for work experience, apprenticeship and employing young people with employment subsidies for the first six months of joining the business.

Tackling youth unemployment is a significant challenge but it can be done. The key is to have the government, business community, community leaders, and skills and education institutions aligned and properly funded to be at the very heart of the plan. The success of this national strategy could not only grow SA’s economy, but also break down some of the inequality barriers. If we don’t take action we risk the future of our nation.

•  Turok is a founder of Transforming a Generation and an adviser to the UK government on youth unemployment.

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