Picture: THE TIMES
Picture: THE TIMES

In every town in SA, unemployment is an entrenched problem demanding new solutions. It’s an inter-generational challenge, plaguing youth in metros, small towns, townships, informal settlements and rural areas; a generational handicap foisted upon millennials, gen-Y and gen-X by a system of spatial and racial inequality.

And, importantly, young South Africans aren’t only unemployed — their older siblings are unemployed; their cousins and friends; even their parents. Unemployment is the norm for at least two generations of South Africans; a cruel reality defeating the hopes and dreams of those who should, instead, be fresh runners to receive the baton.

Many of the “previously” disadvantaged remain disadvantaged.

One response to this SA condition is the Youth Employment Service (YES), a new, business-led approach. YES registration opened in November 2018. Within 17 weeks the initiative was creating 799 new jobs on average per week. The jobs generated in the five months to date is an exciting story; a story about business changing the narrative for young people despite the gloomy economic period.

In a global first, LinkedIn will collaborate with YES to bridge the gap between YES youth and the digital economy

Being a non-profit organisation, YES receives no government funding. It is a landmark, operational collaboration between business, government and labour. In prioritising unemployment, the department of trade and industry amended the broad-based BEE codes, rewarding companies that invest in one-year work experiences for black youth through YES. The extended employment tax incentive further supports businesses offering black youth an economic pathway.

That first step is life-changing for young people in the initiative. For many, it will also be the family’s first disposable income. The R3,500 monthly salary is spent in local economies, boosting local businesses and unlocking a multiplier effect for opportunities. Well over 6-million SA youths are unemployed — that is more than a third of the age group 18 to 35.

Of those applying for work, more than half don’t have matric. And those who have never been employed risk remaining that way until someone is willing to be the first name on a blank CV.

This is the plight of SA’s youth, isolated from opportunities by geography, stymied by economic pressures in the private sector, excluded from the movement towards fourth industrial revolution tech skills, and trapped by the inter-generational effects of poor education.

Disrupt incumbency

Economic growth — if we had it — would not be enough to address this problem. The situation demands new solutions. We are obliged to make use of the world’s best research and practice on inequality, technology, behavioural science and macro-economics, to give our youth, the best chance at a prosperous future.

We must disrupt incumbency and employ every possible solution — for graduates; those without matric; those developing trade skills; and those simply looking for a validation line on their CVs. YES is a new machine and has a unique structure. Born from the CEO Initiative, the organisation works closely with the DTI as the only approved entity registering business for the youth employment BEE benefits.

Despite this, YES is not a government agency, which causes unease. Since opening for business, questions have been raised about the YES approach, its structure, focus on local economies, digital programme with smartphones for youth, and the benefits created to drive participation. Most change attracts disquiet — but that doesn’t make it wrong or not worth trying.

YES registers companies; creates a target for youth placements; works with partners to select and place youth in newly created positions; and monitors and evaluates their 12-month experience

This innovative set-up is, in fact, what gives YES the agility not often associated with organisations operating within government parameters. But in just five months, this agility has quickly led to collaborations and opportunities emerging. In a global first, LinkedIn will collaborate with YES to bridge the gap between YES youth and the digital economy — whether they live near a metro, or farther afield, such as in Mount Frere in the Eastern Cape.

A special deal with cellphone networks provides YES youth with a low-cost smartphone, loaded with research-based, locally developed apps and zero-rated data. And YES can respond to global best practice as research emerges — through relationships with the World Bank; the Dell Foundation; Google; Microsoft; University of California, Davis; the Swiss Development Agency; and think-tanks such as Washington-based Solutions For Youth Employment (S4YE).

The mechanism is elegant and effective. YES registers companies; creates a target for youth placements; works with partners to select and place youth in newly created positions; and monitors and evaluates their 12-month experience. Quality experience systems ensure consistency in learning and growth through digitalised delivery, and an exit strategy with a CV and reference letter. Youth get a transformative experience whether they’re in a rural KwaZulu-Natal clinic or a Sandton high-rise.

YES has 400 companies and 13,593 registered youth work experiences. Six companies have already increased their BEE levels. But the programme needs hundreds of thousands of companies of all sizes to join, and together offer the life-altering validating first experience on the many blank CVs out there.

YES is not an expensive initiative to support. Expense is the consequence of youth disengagement and despair.

• Mohale is Business Leadership SA CEO.