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Fuelling the fire of Youth Unemployment

Categories: ALL THE NEWS , Education, Employment
- youth unemployment challenges will just keep growing.

Unless work-seekers are equipped with work experience and the skills employers really need, our youth unemployment challenges will just keep growing. We have all read the statistics – 3,4 million young people unemployed in SA, 36% of all youths of working age without a job, 67% of all unemployed people in SA classified as youths – but what is really behind South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis?

Is it simply that there are not enough jobs available, or is it perhaps that young people  (especially those with a tertiary qualification) are reluctant to take available entry-level jobs that are not in line with their studies or aspirations for a better life?  How much influence does the lack of work-ready skills play? Are we failing our tertiary students by overselling the strength of their degree or diploma, and by not properly equipping them for the world of work, especially from a ‘soft skills’ perspective?

The truth, especially for graduates, (and latest Adcorp stats, indicate there are around 500,000 of them unemployed in South Africa), is that there are many factors that are fuelling the fire of joblessness in SA.

That our education system is lacking is well known, but the role education establishments play in meeting the needs of the business sector (rather than simply the needs of the student) is not always considered. Educational institutions have a critical responsibility in bridging the gap between the market (employers) and graduate skills. Many international students come to South Africa for workplace experience, because this forms an integral and compulsory part of their course requirements. Their universities have learned that they serve society (and their students) best by incorporating experiential learning (specifically internship) programmes into their education process.

This is rare in South Africa, where more often than not our graduates leave colleges and universities with no work experience whatsoever.  As an employer, this is a problem – too many candidates with decent qualifications are lacking in the skills that are really needed by business, such as computer skills, written and spoken communication skills, teamwork and an understanding of the workplace ethic – for example arriving on time, working hard and delivering 100% (not 30%...). Formal education is vital and valuable to develop critical learning, analysis and interpretive skills, but in a tight market the employer needs more, and frankly we are not delivering in this area.

Experience equals success

A study by PepsiCo USA reminds us that the importance of work experience in finding a job is indeed a global benchmark. Their results confirmed that graduates with a year of work experience under their belt were far more likely to get employed than those with no industry experience.  

Shelby Thompson, PepsiCo’s head of recruitment, said: “With many US graduates struggling to find work after university, this research highlights the need for students to be thinking about gaining valuable industry experience outside their university courses. “

Closer to home, most employers I talk to say that they almost always choose experience over qualifications when it comes to making a hiring decision. A candidate with some experience, even just six months as an intern, will be picked ahead of one with no work experience every time.
This tells us that our tertiary institutions need to develop far closer working relationships with the business sector into which their graduates move. This opens the route for internship and work-placement programmes to bridge the gap between academia and the practical world, and creates a two-way information stream to keep education on track and relevant to market place needs.

An additional challenge in South Africa is that scholars are often greatly misled about the speed at which success happens in the workplace. The realisation that in most cases they will have to start at the bottom and earn their stripes, can be very distressing to a graduate who expected that he/she would be a senior manager within two years. This expectation of instant success, fuelled by family, friends and teachers, and fanned by constant exposure to  tenderpreneurs and flashy politicians, is in direct conflict to the reality of the world, which is that the path to success is most often found through hard work, commitment and effort. The result is that many graduates turn down entry-level jobs or internships that they feel are ‘beneath’ them, choosing to remain unemployed and wait for a better offer – one which sadly, often never comes.

South African Solutions

All is not doom and gloom. Initiatives like the Graduate Asset Programme (GAP) and Harambee are offering local solutions to a local problem. There are currently almost 17,000 graduates, around 650 SMEs and 2,200 available positions on the GAP website (www.gogap.co.za ), which seeks to bridge the gulf between the academic world and business by placing graduates into internships with small and medium host enterprises. The ethos of GAP is to boost growth in the host business with the assistance of young, energetic graduates, whilst providing grads with much needed work experience.

Statistics from the initiative show that as many as 74% of GAP internships translate into longer term placement, making this a hugely viable solution to tackling graduate unemployment. However, GAP programme manager Chantal de Kock reports that many positions remain unfilled due to a lack of the skills employers want, and an unwillingness on the part of some graduates to do an internship, even though it is clearly a bridge to long-term success. “We are seeing some improvements and increasing awareness in the value of internships however, so we are very hopeful for the future,” she adds.

Harambee works more at the base of the pyramid, upskilling school leavers and matriculants and getting them into entry-level jobs with corporate companies. They do significant work to equip these young people with the skills they need to become viable employees, and help them find work where possible.

Initiatives such as these are having a significant impact, but as a nation we need to do a lot more, starting with how we align our educational curriculums to the true needs of the market. The demand and opportunities are there, it is up to us to get the product right.


Catherine Wijnberg is Director and Founder of Fetola (www.fetola.co.za) - Enterprise Development professionals and SME growth specialists.

Catherine has owned and operated small businesses in three countries across five different sectors, and has successfully conceptualised, designed and implemented several award-winning community and business development programmes, including the Legends Incubator programme.

Her most recent initiative, the Graduate Asset Placement (GAP) Programme, seeks to place 24 000 unemployed graduates into internships over the next three years, creating in the region of 8000 permanent jobs.

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