Learning to earn: Research shows that having a matric and tertiary education significantly increases the likelihood of finding work. However, despite remaining enrolled in school longer than men, young women face more challenges finding employment when they leave. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Learning to earn: Research shows that having a matric and tertiary education significantly increases the likelihood of finding work. However, despite remaining enrolled in school longer than men, young women face more challenges finding employment when they leave. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

More than half of the young people in SA are unemployed. This is as astonishing as it is pressing. Youth unemployment is double the rate of the adult population and is probably one of the highest in the world.

It has been this way since 1994 – and probably before, but there are no comparable statistics from the apartheid era. Even during the period of unprecedented growth of about 5% a year in the mid-2000s, when overall employment grew, youth employment remained stubbornly high.

Today, "born-frees" comprise one-fifth of the population, but those who fall into the official definition of youth – aged 15 to 34 – make up about half the population. This should be a demographic dividend, but it has become a liability as young people spend many wasted years between the time they leave school and their first job.

In SA, there are added difficulties to finding work, one being geographic location. Looking for work is expensive and time-consuming.

The other is the inadequate public education system. Those without a matric or tertiary qualifications are far more likely to be unemployed. Research by University of Stellenbosch economist Servaas van der Berg has shown that just 4% of those who began high school in 2008 have a tertiary degree.

The government has consistently put youth development high on its agenda, but with mixed results. All the evidence shows that it is especially hard for young people to get their first job. This is why the Treasury implemented the youth employment tax incentive in 2014. It aims to encourage employers to give young people a first foot in the door.

The Treasury also runs the Jobs Fund, which works with civil society organisations to smooth the difficult transition from school to work.

In addition, in 2013, the Treasury initiated the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth (REDI3x3), an independent national research project run out of the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit based at the University of Cape Town, which has harnessed the country’s leading economists, urban development and land experts, as well as educationalists to inform policy on the basis of empirical research.

New research funded by REDI3x3 has identified some of the factors that enable young people to break out of this cycle and enter the labour market.

Using data from the National Income Dynamics Study (NIDS), a panel study that interviews the same 28,000 people every two years and that began in 2008, we have established patterns of when, how and who gets jobs.

Although the 10-year Census surveys the whole population at a point in time, it is nonetheless a snapshot of the country. NIDS can tell who is falling into poverty or moving out, who is getting employment or not, and what factors are associated with these changes.

But the challenge for young people is not only about finding their first job. Our study measured a substantial amount of 'churning' among employed youth: people who found jobs in one wave had lost them by the next

We followed the same cohort of young people from the first survey (known as Wave 1) in 2008 to the third (Wave 3) in 2012 to establish the patterns.

In 2008, 96% of people aged 16-20 in the survey were enrolled in school or a tertiary institution, but two years later, only half were still enrolled.

More than one third (38%) were classified as NEET – Not in Employment, Education or Training. NEETs portray a group of young people who may well define a lost generation: a category that depicts hopelessness and the lack of a perceptible path out of poverty.

By 2012, the NEET category had grown to half the original cohort. Although the percentage employed had increased between 2010 and 2012 from about 9%, to just more than 20%, it was a much smaller increase than those who left school in the same period. The labour market has been unable to absorb the numbers leaving school.

Moreover, young people remain in the NEET category for a considerable time: about 61% of those who were NEETs in 2010 were still there in 2012. Only one in five had found employment and one in six had re-enrolled in their studies.

But the challenge for young people is not only about finding their first job. Our study measured a substantial amount of "churning" among employed youth: people who found jobs in one wave had lost them by the next. Thus the challenge is not only finding a first job, it is also about keeping it.

There is much research, including from REDI 3x3, which shows that those with matric are more likely to be employed than those without matric; and those who have tertiary education are significantly more likely to find jobs.

Students from historically disadvantaged schools comprise about 72% of our sample. They are more likely to leave school earlier than their better-off counterparts and face a higher chance of unemployment.

By 2012, fewer than 19% of those without matric were employed; about 29% of those with matric were employed and about 33.5% of young people with some tertiary education (not necessarily a degree) had found work.

But tertiary enrolment is rare: just 10% of the young people who were at school in 2008 had any post-secondary training by 2012.

The evidence also shows that young people who live with both parents are more likely to stay in school longer. About one-third lived with their fathers and about two-thirds with their mothers. Most of those whose fathers lived in the family home lived with both parents.

Gender also makes a difference. Young women were more likely to remain enrolled in school longer, but found it more difficult to get a job once they left. While one in three men found employment within four years after leaving school, only one in seven women did.

Migration is another key factor. This is a profound reflection of the apartheid past when the "traditional" rural areas were effective ghettoes for the poor and marginalised.

In our study, close to one-fifth of youth who lived in rural areas in 2008 had migrated to urban areas by 2012. Those who had done so stood a much better chance of finding work than those who remained in rural areas. The employment rate of migrants from rural to urban areas was almost double that of young people who remained in rural areas.

Too many young people live in places ill-located to find employment. Being in a township on the urban periphery is hard, but being in a rural area even more so.

So, SA’s cities will be under increased pressure unless opportunities are created for young people in rural areas.

Education quality is central. Those from disadvantaged schools are highly unlikely to enter tertiary institutions, and without a tertiary qualification, they are more likely to remain unemployed for longer.

Although they are enrolled in schools for longer, women have a harder time finding employment when they leave.

The journey from school to work is challenging for most young people, but it is much tougher for the majority of SA’s youth than it should be. There needs to be a concerted effort to move jobs to where people live, or to make it possible for people to live closer to opportunities. Young women need special policy attention.

If not tackled, the poor quality of education at government schools will result in a generation that becomes more "lost" than their parents, many of whom sacrificed education to fight apartheid.

Mlatsheni and Ranchhod are economists at Saldru at UCT; the research was done for REDI3x3.

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