Creating jobs for young South Africans is the most urgent and important task of the moment. It must be at the centre of all the efforts of social partners to grow and transform the economy. It should guide all the policies and programmes of government. Activities that create jobs should be supported; activities that have the potential to destroy jobs should be shelved. In its January 8th Statement, the ANC called for a social compact that unites government, business, labour and civil society around a programme for growth, job creation and transformation.
It said: “While this social pact will be wide-ranging, it will need to focus in particular on youth unemployment, whose devastating impact on young people is cause for major concern. Despite the progress we have made in expanding access to education, millions of young people do not have the skills that the economy needs. Even those with skills lack the work experience and readiness that most employers look for.”
This social compact is already taking form. The constituencies in Nedlac have begun preparations for a Jobs Summit to take place later this year, which is expected to agree on a range of extraordinary measures to get millions of young people into employment as a matter of urgency. The process will draw on the insights, energy and capabilities of a broad section of South African society to ensure that this is a truly national undertaking. The input of young people will be critical in making sure that the Jobs Summit is meaningful and leads to the creation of job opportunities for youth.
This task is so important not only because of the extent of the challenge – more than a third of South Africans between 15 and 34 years are unemployed – but also because a massive increase in youth employment is central to our efforts to defeat poverty, grow the economy and improve livelihoods. Employment is the most direct way for young people to escape the cycle of poverty and to achieve a better standard of living. More broadly, it contributes to the development of communities, reduces inequality and promotes transformation.
It is necessary to ensure that both men and women have equal opportunities to find employment and to advance within the workplace. This will go a long way to improving the economic position of women and thus their position in society. It will empower women and contribute to gender equality.
The extent to which South Africa addresses youth unemployment will largely determine the economic and social path that the country takes. Because South Africa is such a young country – more than half of all South Africans are under 35 years – it has enormous potential to become a centre of production, innovation and growth. South Africa has an opportunity to benefit from the ‘demographic dividend’, where a country’s productive capacity expands as more young people enter the workforce in large numbers. This contributes to faster and more sustained economic growth, while ensuring that the benefits of the growth are more broadly shared.
However, South Africa will not benefit from the demographic dividend if it is not able to create work for young people, to equip them with the skills they need and ensure that they are prepared for the world of work. Unless we move quickly to reduce youth unemployment, the economy will decline, poverty will deepen and social stability will be gradually eroded.
That is why the next few years matter. We need to move quickly and with purpose to create more jobs in those parts of the economy where young people, many with few skills, will find employment. There needs to be detailed work, as part of preparations for the Jobs Summit, to identify where jobs can be created and agree on measures to develop such industries. Such job creation depends on a growing economy, which depends on far higher levels of investment. Guided by the resolutions of the ANC 54th National Conference, government has undertaken a massive investment drive to reach out to local and international investors and to improve the ease of doing business in South Africa.
While it is essential to generate investment, any significant growth in youth employment depends on improving the skills of young South Africans. Children need to receive quality education from early childhood and need to remain in school through to matric. Even as the matric pass rate improves, it is necessary to reduce the drop-out rate. More matriculants need to get passes that enable them to proceed to universities, TVET colleges and other institutions of higher learning.
The implementation of the ANC 54th National Conference resolution to provide fee free higher education to students from poor and working class backgrounds has begun, with students entering first year study receiving a comprehensive bursary from the state. As it is progressively phased in, this policy promises to dramatically change the level and distribution of skills in the country. Not only will the economy have more of the skills that it needs, but it will be able to find those skills among the children of the poor.
Another critical task, which is receiving the attention of government and the private sector, is ensuring that institutions of higher learning, particularly TVET colleges, produce relevant skills that are needed in the economy. There are several initiatives to ensure that companies are more integrally involved in determining skills priorities, designing courses and providing workplace experience for students. We should follow the example of other countries, such as Germany, where the theoretical aspect is reinforced through practical artisan training.
In addition to these efforts, there is a need to create pathways for young people into employment now. Young work seekers face many obstacles. Most do not have access to networks, are not aware of opportunities, live far from places of work and lack suitable work experience. In response to this challenge, government, business and labour have launched the Youth Employment Service initiative, which provides one-year work experience opportunities for unemployed youth in participating companies. Alongside government’s Employment Tax Incentive, this initiative aims to reduce the cost and risk of employing young people with little work experience. Together with public employment schemes like the Expanded Public Works Programme and the set-aside of jobs for youth on major infrastructure projects, there is great scope for increasing youth employment now.
There is a significant challenge of graduates who cannot find employment, and whose relative lack of experience discourages companies from employing them. These graduates constitute a significant untapped pool of skills and talent. Companies and public sector institutions need to understand that it is in their best interests to take on these graduates and realise the great potential that they possess.
These efforts all depend on effective collaboration between the social partners and the mobilisation of broader society. The challenge of youth unemployment requires a response that draws on the energies, talents, resources and attention of all South Africans. This will largely determine whether our country enters a new era of inclusive growth and development, or whether it is overcome by the legacy of the past. We therefore have no time to waste and no effort to spare. Now is the time to build a social compact for youth employment.