Unemployed graduates vent their frustration outside East London City Hall. Picture: ALAN EASON/DAILY DISPATCH
Unemployed graduates vent their frustration outside East London City Hall. Picture: ALAN EASON/DAILY DISPATCH

The private sector employs about three-quarters of SA’s workers and accounts for more than two-thirds of investment and research and development spending. The economy needs a thriving private sector that is investing in productive capacity.

But youth unemployment is a significant challenge. In mid-May, Stats SA released crushing figures that showed SA’s unemployment rate rose to 27.6% in the first quarter of 2019, nearing a 15-year high. Critically, of SA’s 20.3-million young people aged 15–34 years, 40.7% were not in employment, education or training. It is vital the private sector plays a role in providing young people with tools to find meaningful employment and business opportunities.

Just prior to the general elections, as political-party preparations reached fever pitch, President Cyril Ramaphosa made the time to recognise an investment in SA’s youth. He visited Nedbank’s head offices in Sandton, where more than 3,000 young people were welcomed to the bank to gain work experience through the Youth Employment Service (YES) initiative.

The reforms, revisions and inquiries instituted by SA’s new president have cautiously revived the nation’s belief that many of its biggest challenges can be tackled. It is in this context that his backing of YES is especially significant. Significant because of the potential to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of young South Africans. Significant, too, because the programme is a concrete step towards tackling one the country’s most pressing socioeconomic challenges. YES aims to have 1-million youth in work-experience programmes over time.

The private sector’s focus on supporting the age group struggling the most — namely post-matric young adults up to the age of 35 — is encouraging. This youth cohort — the so-called born frees — are the first in SA’s democracy to be reaching the work environment, often without the benefits of early childhood development. While the government has done extraordinary work since 1994 on foundation-phase education, many of the 20-year-olds today did not benefit from those structures. This affects access to tertiary education as well as their employability.

About 4-million young South Africans have not completed secondary school or have matriculated without the appropriate skills to enter universities. They find it difficult to find jobs, and those who do join the labour market struggle to progress in their occupation given their lack of skills. It is these young adults who need purpose and hope for the future.

Young people must be given the opportunity to get the skills  companies need or the tools with which they can start their own businesses. Driven by the belief that the first step is the most crucial in unlocking career potential for young people, YES is an inspiring example of how the private sector can partner with corporates to provide previously disadvantaged youth between the ages of 18 and 35 work experience for one year, giving these young people a chance to demonstrate their abilities, establish their work ethic and prove their worth. 

But committing time and money is only the first step in an effective programme and won’t alone result in skills development that translates into sustainable employment. I speak here as a human resources professional who has for nearly a decade experimented with, tweaked and refined programmes with aims that closely resemble those of YES.

Workplace programmes

Glass manufacturing is a unique, specialised undertaking, and that means we need to attract and retain people with skills that are in many cases unique to our industry. We have tried to do this through three programmes, each of which has had their own challenges and successes.

The first of these programmes is a traditional apprenticeship, which was formalised in 2008. The primary lesson learnt from this initiative was that apprenticeship programmes need to be institutionalised, with clear training modules and interventions. These programmes need engaged mentors able to guide and motivate younger employees. They cannot work in a vacuum, nor removed from the skills development provided by accredited training institutions that understand a business’s skills needs and deficiencies. Apprenticeship schemes play a key role in producing highly qualified workers and thus should be a higher priority on the education and training agenda.

The benefits of apprenticeships to businesses are myriad. Getting young people into the organisation early in their careers helps to inculcate the company culture, promotes a sense of belonging, and engenders a long-term commitment from both sides while the apprentice works to achieve their qualification, and then goes on to specialise and hopefully excel at their craft.

These principles are closely aligned to our philosophy of hiring people with the right attitude and potential. We can empower them with skills and exposure to the workplace, but in the absence of those values the entire premise of this relationship falls flat. I believe this will be one of the biggest lessons that employers and employees will gain from participating in YES. This has been our experience from our two other employment initiatives.

The first of these is a learnership programme, which has been running for eight years. Nearly 200 unemployed youth who had at least a grade 12 qualification, but no prior work experience, have participated to date. To support the uptake of the unique skills required in our industry, we developed in-house, Seta-accredited training programmes and capacity. But the success of this programme was dependent on us developing very clear paths for the learners, including what they required to progress to the next pay grade, what they learnt and how long they could expect that journey to take.

Our most recent intervention resembles the YES initiative as it provides work experience to young people in local communities who have some tertiary education qualification, but who have not been able to find work. Since 2010, we have offered opportunities to youngsters in a discipline aligned with their qualification. The youth receive a stipend while gaining experience, and happily we have employed 44 of the 146 youngsters who took part in this programme as full-time staff members.

The National Development Plan’s Vision 2030 is to have a successful post-school system that produces quality learning opportunities and produces skilled and employable members of society — citizens who will, in turn, create jobs for others. It also focuses on improving the college-sector rate of throughput and employment, strengthening the relationship between the college sector and industry to facilitate graduate absorption and employment, and establishing community training initiatives. It is vital that companies play their role in alleviating youth unemployment in the communities near their operations.

Armed with our on-the-ground experience with programmes focused on youth development and workplace experience, I predict that companies partnering with the government by taking part in YES or similar youth capacitation programmes can only benefit. But the biggest beneficiaries will undoubtedly be the youngsters who gain confidence, skills and hope that they do have a rightful place in the economy.

The real power of investing in our youth lies in creating a bridge between the disillusionment and despair felt by so many of these youngsters and the burgeoning hope, shared by a business sector that has felt the pressure of operating in a decade-long low-growth economy, for a future marked by prosperity and opportunity.

• Mkhuzangwe is human resources director at Consol Glass.