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Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL
Picture: 123RF/RAW PIXEL

Children should be seen and not heard, the adage goes. While we have fortunately left behind the notion that the voices and fortunes of the youth are less important than those of their senior counterparts, unfortunately in this Youth Month, statistics that quantify the reality of the SA youth scream louder than words: we are failing the next generation.   

In May, the latest Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) showed that more than 80% of grade 4 children in SA could not read for meaning. It is estimated that only about half of the children that start school each year will go on to matriculate.

And regrettably, it becomes increasing difficult to overcome the skills deficit as time goes on. Stats SA’s latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey shows that youths aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years recorded the highest unemployment rates of all age groups at 62.1% and 40.7%, respectively.

The challenges facing our youth are multifaceted, and as SA continues to grapple with heightened load-shedding, stubbornly high inflation and a plethora of other matters, it is easy to add the youth to our extensive to-do list of areas that require intervention, without taking action or hoping that someone else would come along to fix things.

Yet the power of incremental progress, achieved by combining committed individual efforts and contributions, is often underestimated. Long-term success would not be possible by acting alone — it requires a collective and integrated approach with buy-in from the public as well as private sectors, civil society and all stakeholders involved. But what can corporates do to put our youth on a different trajectory, even if each step may only help to make a little headway? 

While the list of possible interventions is long and intricate, I believe there are three small steps in particular that can make a significant impact over time: 

Entrepreneurship support 

Fostering an entrepreneurial culture by providing mentorship, training and financial support has never been more important. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a particularly difficult time for many entrepreneurs, and with indications that load-shedding will escalate this winter the challenge for financial institutions is to not only offer financial products, but solutions that can truly improve the environment for these vital enablers.

Recognising the unique challenges facing young entrepreneurs, solutions should be tailored to meet their specific needs and address some of the key obstacles they are facing, including access to finance, access to market and access to nonfinancial support. 

Skills development 

Equipping young people with the practical skills required by the formal job and entrepreneurial market will be a key factor in addressing SA’s youth unemployment crisis. In this regard, it is vital to develop those skills that can offer solutions to our country’s unique challenges.   

With this in mind, Absa, in collaboration with the National Business Initiative, put its weight behind the Sapvia PV GreenCard and funded the training and assessments of 50 township SMEs. (The GreenCard has been developed in an effort to support best practice standardisation across the industry and encourage safe, reliable and compliant solar installations.)

The aim of the initiative is to assist these township SMEs to unlock new opportunities in the green economy, but also increase their capacity to host unemployed young people while providing on-the-job experience. 

Education

It is also critically important to invest in training and education programmes that will equip our youth with the skills needed to compete in a competitive market, whether as employees or entrepreneurs.

The opportunity for corporates to contribute to changing the future trajectory of SA’s youth is immense. Ultimately, the evolution and development of our nation is an ongoing commitment, but we need to invest in our youth if we are to transform SA society into one that can hold its own globally, and outperform other markets.

As leaders, the challenge is simple: how can we, little by little and collectively, make a difference and ensure SA youth are not only seen and heard, but equipped to excel?    

• Mkhize is CEO for relationship banking at Absa Group.

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