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Ina Opperman | 12 August 2023

According to Statistics SA data released in May, the youth unemployment rate was estimated to be 62.1% in the first quarter of 2023.

South Africa’s growing youth skills and unemployment divide can be bridged by employability and SME incubator initiatives, but we need more corporate and government programmes that provide school leavers with a platform to learn, make mistakes and grow.

South Africa can improve its youth unemployment crisis by creating awareness of available employability training opportunities and educating SMEs on their crucial role in empowering youth while growing the economy, Shawn Theunissen, founder of Property Point, says.

Some initiatives, particularly the collaborative partnerships between government and business are promising, such as the Youth Employment Service (YES) and National Business Initiative (NBI). These programmes equip young people with in-demand skills, soft skills and job readiness training, as well as mentorship and job placement to promote the growth and progression of our economy, he says.

“Another bright light has been that SMEs also have a significant role where they contribute to local economies by bringing growth and innovation to the communities where they operate. They also stimulate economic growth by providing employment opportunities to people who may need to be more employable by larger corporations. Therefore, SMEs can be the perfect hosts for youth employability programmes.”

The Statistics SA data implies that 12.7 million young people between the ages of 15 and 35 are unemployed, the highest globally. The new ‘economic pandemic’ is manifested in our energy crisis, fuel cost, inflation, high-interest rate and volatile currency, Theunissen says.

Economy struggling to create opportunities

“While these factors are out of our control, they contributed to our slow-growing economy, which is struggling to create opportunities for those looking to break into the labour market. This situation harms individuals, their families and the broader community through severe economic and social consequences, including economic welfare, erosion of human capital, social exclusion, crime and social instability.”

He points out that the labour market has become increasingly skills intensive. “For example, the pandemic revealed a global and domestic need for digital and information technology skills. With a deteriorating education system, which continues to churn out unskilled youth, there needs to be more alignment between labour supply and demand.”

There is also an issue around gender parity regarding the technical skills available for youth and specific sectors, such as mining, construction and manufacturing, are still relatively insensitive to women.

HR specialists suggest there are skills shortages in every sector and that the information technology and finance sectors have the most shortages, although the deficits are felt almost across the board, including in medical and health, marketing design, media and arts, business and management and engineering.

“For unskilled young people, the hurdle is so much more significant as they need more theoretical knowledge and technical skills for in-demand jobs and services that would enable them to enter the job market or set up their enterprises.”

Theunissen says a basic framework, language and practical experience is also necessary to develop their professional behavioural competencies and the soft skills needed to prepare them for work.

“Notably, soft skills are also in short supply among the youth. Soft skills include many abilities, including communication, teamwork, problem-solving, adaptability, time management, leadership, critical thinking, empathy and emotional intelligence. Soft skills are crucial for young people entering the job market and can determine whether they are employed.”

Many not aware of in-demand skills

There are very few 15 to 18-year-olds who know which careers they would want to pursue and without career guidance and counselling coupled with aptitude and personality psychometric testing, they will not be aware of which skills are in demand, understand their style and inclination to a specific scope of operation or discipline and make the correct subject choices, especially if they aspire of attending tertiary institutions, Theunissen says.

He highlights that there are also generational issues that the youth need to contend with in the workplace, which often diminishes the prospects of an intern’s integration and absorption by a host company.

“The organisational culture may not be conducive for people of different generations to work together and there is a chance for conflict due to other age groups’ attitudes, values and beliefs. As a result, stereotypes are common.”

However, Theunissen says, we can solve the skills gap and unemployment conundrum. “For example, Property Point implemented employability programmes in the built environment with partners. With substantial experience recruiting young people for training and placement into B-BBEE SMEs, we have identified many pressure points, challenges and solutions to fulfil their mandate.”

He says solving this problem requires collaboration among various sectors which could complement each other’s efforts. It starts with committed funders deploying grants to support skills development and placement initiatives.

“Invariably, the skills gap challenge is just one side of the coin. On the flip side is identifying “super hosts”, companies that exhibit the ethos of empowerment and skills development. The absorption of our youth has as much to do with their attitude, willingness and ability to learn when afforded the opportunities to be placed at host companies to obtain work experience, as the host’s attitude and commitment to the employability programmes and initiatives.”

Government and private sector programmes for youth

Government has incentivised large companies to take calculated risks and accommodate youth through learnership programmes. Training providers can, therefore, focus on developing skills programmes that include job-readiness skills, demand-driven training, and entrepreneurship.

Theunissen says programmes must provide psycho-social support that promotes social inclusion, tenacity and resilience. “Business needs to create opportunities for youth through workplace skills placements and job opportunities. Finally, young people must have the right attitude, be motivated and committed to the programmes.”

While the YES programme, as a collaboration between government, business and labour, has offered opportunities for paid (stipend) work experience for our unemployed youth, the skills gap remains a critical risk for companies most impacted, Theunissen warns.

“Organisations must develop their labour planning strategies to prepare for the future workforce to maintain their growth plans. Irrespective of the successes achieved to date, more collaboration is needed if employment outcomes are to be improved. SMEs in particular must support the young people they host.

“Without this, we will see an increasing sense of exclusion among young people. Frustration levels will be heightened and physical and mental well-being will be lower, which will feed the cycle of unemployment and poverty.”

Theunissen says many young people leaving school and even tertiary institutions still need to be ideally skilled or competent to enter the workforce and they need opportunities to experience the world of work and earn their stripes.

“The collaborative employability initiatives have laid the foundation to build bridges to overcome the skills gap and youth unemployment crisis. Now our efforts must move beyond regulation and compliance and all stakeholders must demonstrate a passion and commitment to be the difference we need to see.”

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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