It is no surprise that youth unemployment was highlighted by every major party in the lead up to the May elections. After all, 8-million potential voters under 35 years of age have no jobs. There was, of course, the usual talk of improving our skills base and growing the economy to create more jobs. This rhetoric continued in the state of the nation address (Sona) delivered last week, in which growing the economy was a central focus.

However, the reality is that the creation of jobs alone will not solve our youth unemployment crisis. More encouraging were suggestions both in the manifesto and in Sona of immediate interventions that could significantly improve the prospects of young people in the short term by tackling the structural barriers that keep them isolated from opportunity.

Getting a basic education is challenging enough for the majority of young South Africans, let alone obtaining a post-school qualification, which is an increasingly important entry requirement for the labour force. But these challenges are only one part of the story. Young people also face numerous socio-economic barriers in accessing the limited educational and economic opportunities that do exist.

The period in between leaving an education institution and entering the labour market is a particularly uncertain time for any young person, made worse for the majority of young South Africans (62%) who live in income-poor households.

In our effort to better understand the complexities of being young in SA, Youth Capital spoke with 350 young people last year. They told us how ill-equipped and overwhelmed they feel not only at the prospect of finding opportunities, but also at holding onto those opportunities if they are lucky enough to find them.

While the ANC has promised to create about 275,000 jobs annually and to create targets for internships, there is no mention of how to support young people once they are placed in these opportunities

For example, young people repeatedly shared how stressful it is to find the money to look for work. On average, they spend about R550 a month job seeking — the majority of which is spent on transport and data costs.

This means that in an income-poor household, young people are spending half of their monthly income looking for work.

Encouragingly, some of the promises made by the recently re-elected ANC speak directly to these complexities of the “in-between” period. Its election manifesto, for instance, highlighted the need for decreased data costs and an improved transport system, which, if implemented effectively, could be a breakthrough for reducing the cost of looking for work. While this is a good start, other gaps remain when it comes to addressing the vulnerabilities young people face on their journey into the workforce.

Decreased data costs

Most young people in SA lack social capital — in other words, they do not have the social network in place to find work. Consider that 42% of people aged 15 to 24 live in a household without an employed adult — a significant disadvantage in an age when social networks are the most successful way to find a job. And while the ANC has promised to create about 275,000 jobs annually and to create targets for internships, there is no mention of how to support young people once they are placed in these opportunities so they are able to hold on to their jobs and advance in them.  

The recent findings from the Competition Commission of its “Data Services Market Inquiry” are heartening — with the results that data is too expensive and “anti-poor” in that small data bundles cost more per MB than the larger bundles wealthier people can afford. With that in mind, the recommendations for immediate relief on data pricing and the zero-rating of public benefit organisations pave the way for inclusion and innovation to support young work-seekers stuck in limbo.

Zero-rating would allow platforms such as JobStarter — a low data-usage mobile and web platform that offers free mobile courses (m-learning) to help young people with little or no work experience build their foundational work competence, and connects them with opportunity providers — reach a far greater number of young people in the effort to boost their social capital.

Finally, the youth told us how parental health and family responsibilities weigh heavily on them, yet there is a lack of counseling services that are accessible, affordable and non-judgmental. While the ANC’s election manifesto promised to increase psycho-social support for vulnerable learners, no mention was made of mental health support for young people not in school. The question of how we effectively provide psycho-social support — at scale — to young people who are not in employment, education or training, remains unasked by the ruling party and demands immediate attention from the public and civil society sectors.

By our estimates, 1.5-million young people have been looking for work for more than three years. This is of concern as the longer young people get stuck in this “in-between”, the more discouraged they become, until many eventually simply give up on the very ordinary dream of finding a decent job.

We see this in the doubling of the number of discouraged young job-seekers between 2008 and 2017 — from 755,916 to 1,570,755 individuals. Young people shouldn’t have to beat these odds on their own. With some promising strategies in place, now is the time to improve the lot of our young people – so they don’t spend their whole lives stuck in the “in-between”.

• Duncan is project lead of Youth Capital, a DG Murray Trust initiative.