Picture: Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd
Picture: Gallo Images/Dino Lloyd

Youth unemployment has long been a crisis in SA, but Covid-19 has pushed the country into uncharted waters. The pandemic and the resulting national lockdown have caused a recession unlike anything SA has seen in generations — if ever.

Not only is the economy expected to contract by 7.2% in 2020 — the largest in at least 90 years — but uncertainty around the timing and magnitude of recovery has sent seismic shocks into the labour market, especially for young adults.

According to the first-wave results of the recent National Income Dynamics Study: Coronavirus Rapid Mobile Survey (Nids-Cram), adult employment dropped from 57% in February to 48% in April. If we narrow that further, to just young adults, youth employment (ages 18-29) plummeted from 43% in February to 29% in April, if temporary workers are excluded.

If there’s any hope of staving off generations-long socioeconomic damage, there needs to be an urgent shift in the thinking around the kind of jobs and career paths that can provide unemployed youth with meaningful work experience.

Responses to this issue can no longer rely on traditional industry and enterprise to create jobs; these sectors represented a declining share of GDP even before the pandemic. Instead, we need to think more creatively about how to generate entirely fresh types of employment for young adults, in the way that community health workers have opened new career paths around the world while improving health outcomes.

Teaching assistants (TAs) are among the most promising — and evidence-based — solutions to the dual crises of youth unemployment and large classroom sizes in SA.

The aim of a TA programme is not to replace the teacher, or to add a second teacher to the classroom; it is to provide an assistant who can help the teacher with admin and classroom management. About 63% of children in SA are in classes of more than 40 pupils; 16% of children have to learn in classes of more than 60 pupils.

At the best of times, such large class sizes threaten learning outcomes for pupils in the poorest schools. During Covid-19, they are even more untenable. School closures, missed months of learning, and uncertainty about the virus itself threaten to widen the education gap between the poor and the affluent. But the introduction of a TA programme could ameliorate that, while also creating long-term job opportunities.

Young people with at least a matric qualification would have to be trained through accredited online short courses in line with the National Reading Framework, such as the Reading For Meaning course offered by Rhodes University. Each TA would then be assigned to a foundation phase teacher. Schools that are eligible for the programme would recruit young people from the communities in which they are based. The schools, along with their management teams, will provide a vetting infrastructure for the programme.

A TA programme would be highly cost-effective, if rolled out in phases. It could be implemented first in the foundation phase — where the gap in learning outcomes begins — in schools with extremely large classes. This would create 28,500 new jobs through the nine provinces.

The cost won’t be small: we estimate R1.5bn in the next year, including all training. But even in highly restrictive budgetary times — perhaps especially in these times — we must prioritise funding that solves urgent social problems while also offering multiplier effects in the economy.

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s vision in launching the presidential youth employment intervention, and setting aside 1% of the national budget for youth employment projects, is to be applauded. We suggest that a TA programme would be an innovative, high-impact use of that budget.

Youth TA positions aren’t one-off building jobs or short-term shift work; they’re an entry point to crucial, meaningful careers. They’re part of a structural, longer-term change to our economy, offering the types of skills development and stable job experience that magnify our economic capacity, while improving the quality of education for the most vulnerable.

Last month, Ramaphosa challenged young South Africans to "craft and design programmes that will enable us to meet our developmental goals".

A national teaching assistant project is just such a programme. Let’s build it.

*Makaluza is an associate researcher at the research on socioeconomic policy unit at Stellenbosch University; Mpeta is a project manager at educational nonprofit Funda Wande and a lecturer in the economics department at Stellenbosch University; Carel, a former Funda Wande project manager, researches education personnel and school finance. For more information on the Nids-Cram survey, visit http://www.cramsurvey.org 

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