Is SA a conducive environment for youth employment?

Johannesburg, 23 Jun 2023

Only 25% of South African youth feel positive about the future, according to a survey published in News24 late last year. They face pressure and uncertainty about the economy, energy, climate change and other issues, leaving them feeling stressed out and unsure about the future.

CTU Training Solutions held a webinar in June at which it discussed various issues related to the future world of work.

What is the first step?

With the high percentage of youth unemployment in South Africa (more than 30%), panellists were asked what is the first thing to consider in the fight to combat unemployment. 

Sarah Farrell, strategic communication and fundraising manager at African Climate Alliance, says several factors come into play, there is no one single solution. “Climate is often a secondary consideration when people are fighting bread and butter issues. However, we see floods affecting many areas of SA and damaging infrastructure. This presents a good opportunity around combating unemployment because we can look at how to find or create green economic jobs, if we look at moving away from fossil fuel, food security or water stability. We can upskill people and find jobs that are emerging, that don’t exist yet, as we transition into an economy that’s sustainable for people and the planet.”

Themba Robin, SA voice artist, actor, MC and content creator, who MCed the webinar, agreed, saying: “You need to make sure your future self is looked after, look for opportunities in jobs that don’t exist yet.”

Farai Mzungu, COO of Youth Health Africa, agrees: “Whether it’s youth looking for jobs or employers looking for skills, the statistics are disheartening – they paint a clear picture of a multi-faceted issue. The answer won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution. The first step should be boosting job creation and increasing demand for labour. SA is ripe for entrepreneurship and innovation: we need to create and foster an environment that encourages young people to put new ideas on paper and develop those into action. We need to encourage them to start small businesses and employ people.”

Tshepiso Malema, founder and CEO of Gamers Territory, is an advocate for the gaming industry: “It comes with skills development that can be monetised. Ten years ago, we wouldn’t have imagined using gaming skills to make money. Young people should take advantage of social media and the digital world.”

Robin says: “I see a recurring theme, we’re talking about using the skills that we already have, but also preparing for jobs that will exist in five to 10 years’ time.”

Vhahangwele Tsotetsi, chairperson of Project Youth SA, agrees that there’s no single solution to youth unemployment. “It’s crucial to enhance the quality of education and skills development. We need to bridge the skills gap and create economic competitiveness. In SA, we have many unemployed youth, but most of them lack the skills that are in demand by the job market. By improving education and skills development, we can bridge the gap between the skills required by employers and the unemployed youth, enabling them to access the job market. By investing in education and skills development, we’ll enhance the overall economic competitiveness of SA, as a skilled workforce attracts local and foreign investment.”

He cites the example of Germany, a country that managed to more than halve its youth unemployment rate by combining school education with a practical, workplace component. “The country has also implemented measures to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses, creating a more flexible labour market, making it easier for youth to find work.”

Tsotetsi advises the youth to get the exposure and experience they require in their field by volunteering while they’re still studying.

Robin points out that this is similar to the old apprenticeship system, where young people worked with an expert in their field for a period of time.

Abdul Soondka, analyst at Cadena Growth Partners, adds: “Most companies are looking, in the short term, to reduce their bottom-line expenditure and save money, with retrenchments being one of the tools deployed. Official youth unemployment may be around 30%, but the effective unemployment rate is a much higher number.”

He advises youth to look for problems to solve, such as access to potable drinking water. “Instead of looking at how to increase profits, businesses should be looking at how they can increase the number of people able to spend and contribute towards the country’s economy.”

SA’s challenging social, political, economic environment

Robin highlights a common theme – the importance of taking positive steps forward instead of defensive steps backwards. “As South Africans, we’re unique in that we’re challenged on so many levels on a daily basis; we face unrest, lack of access to energy and water, we have safety concerns and gender-based violence is rife. As a young person, how do we tackle this in a positive manner?”

Itumeleng Mokoena, economist for Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies, believes a lot of SA’s problems are structural in nature. “Some of the drivers of our high unemployment rate among the youth are a skills mismatch between what employers look for and the skills that job seekers have. Young people need to be equipped with skills needed by the SA economy now and in the future. This is a structural problem that must be addressed. Then there’s the cost of finding a job, which we don’t often think about. Many of our youth live outside the main economic centres, so incur transportation costs when going to look for a job. If they look for work online, they incur data costs. Finally, they might not know how to look for a job, how to do a CV or prepare for interviews. We need to bridge those gaps.”

Mokoena also believes that we need to create a sense of optimism among young people by offering mentorship opportunities that will help them to equip themselves with skills required by today’s economy.

Tarris Arnold, Business Development Lead at Luno SA, says it’s easy to find a problem to solve, as there are so many of them. “As individuals, we need to be accountable for how we contribute to those problems. There is a lot of value in taking accountability and trying to solve a problem in your immediate area.” He advises the youth to choose one small problem to solve instead of trying to change the world.

Robin says we all need to be accountable and consider how we can make a difference, such as using less water or electricity. “When facing a challenge, it’s important to take small steps and make gradual progress, instead of trying to do it all at once.”

Aluwani Chokoe, Deputy Director of the Gauteng Department of Economic Development, says making positive changes in communities starts with us. “There are many factors affecting our economic growth, and one of those is the ineffectiveness of government. The youth can play a role in becoming the types of leaders we want to elect.

“We also have to ask whether our education system speaks to the type of country we’re trying to build. We need to offer subjects that will fill future demand – digital literacy is an indispensable skill that we need to make available to the youth.”

Mzungu adds: “It’s easy to be negative about the situation in our country. However, many youth are working to effect positive change in their community. I’d like to see more young people join them, empowering themselves and those around them. Young people should participate in social activism and advocacy, raising awareness around issues that affect society. They need to get involved in democratic processes and make young people’s voices heard. Those who are eligible must register to vote – and be aware of the political parties active in their communities. We need to build more responsive and inclusive democracy.”

Tsotetsi agrees that it’s important for young people to be in leadership roles. “Most of the issues we face emanate from our leadership. For a democracy to function properly, it needs the youth demographic to function, as young people constitute the majority. How do we get them to participate when they spend all their time trying to provide for their families? How do we convince them they need to vote and exercise their constitutional right?”

Mzungu adds: “We need to ensure we’re communicating and engaging with young people, they must understand the power that is in their vote. People become apathetic when votes seem to not change anything. But if we can engage them in a way that makes them understand their vote does change something, that’s a big first step.”

Crypto-currency and Bitcoin

Robin asks: “How relevant is this for the youth of South Africa and should we be preparing for a Bitcoin world?”

Arnold says we need to take a step back from Bitcoin and crypto-currency and talk about the technology that enables it, ie, blockchain. “It’s an attempt to build a world where we can interact with a level of trust and transparency that other platforms can’t provide. This digitally focused world is second nature to the youth. Unfortunately, our financial system hasn’t evolved at the same pace. We’re looking for a financial system that’s more secure and transparent, where we have more control over our money and data. Africa and SA have high adoption rates of crypto-currency, where previously we’ve played catchup on technological advancements. It’s an exciting opportunity for the youth to play a role, as the world evolves and financial systems evolve with it. However, I would encourage everyone to do their research and take advantage of available resources before getting involved in crypto-currency.”

Soondka says it’s important to consider the hype cycle. “Bitcoin and crypto-currencies were going to change the world when they first came out. Now we’re starting to get real about what the technology can do. People must understand it’s a long-term play and they need to get in early before it becomes a mainstream technology. For the youth, it’s definitely an area that needs to be explored, just like IOT was. There’s going to be a day when experience talks, so young South Africans should look at it as a technology and follow the hype cycle and ensuing waves.”

Arnold adds: “There is a perception globally and locally that the average person doesn’t have the intellect to understand financial concepts or tools, which is very condescending. It’s important to push the notion of inclusivity when comes to education around financial instruments. You shouldn’t need to learn a new language just to open an account, for example.”

Supporting the youth’s mental health

Robin introduces the topic of mental health. “The pandemic saw a marked increase in mental health issues in general. What can be done to help the youth cope better with mental health challenges?”

Mzungu agrees that COVID-19 placed a magnifying glass over mental health and other issues. “When you combine mental health challenges with the demands placed on individuals by unemployment and the communities they live in, it’s a perfect storm. The biggest threat is feeling unsupported by those around us. However, there are support structures available such as NGOs, public sector hospitals and helplines.”

Soondka says: “It’s not a uniquely South African problem. Globally, there’s a major focus on having helplines and other support structures, such as telemedicine-type solutions. Even if we have to use overseas technology, this should be made available to SA youth.”

Robin agrees: “Too many people live almost entirely online and their self-worth is linked to likes and shares. As much as technology is important for the future, we need to connect to tangible relationships in the real world.”

Farrell is on the same page. “Business needs to think about how employees are treated. Mental health issues must be treated as a real illness. Businesses should have wellness programmes and encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. We need to change the stigma at a corporate and organisational level.”

Final thoughts

Tsotetsi says: “Government needs to invest in the youth – failure to do so is a recipe for disaster. There’s a lot of potential in this country, but they are relegated to the sidelines. We need to harness that potential.”

Farrell says there are different avenues that the youth can take, with informal education and learning through experience being equally valid.

Mokoena advises the youth to take up opportunities that present themselves, regardless of what they are.

Soondka adds: “I know it’s hard, but you have to keep trying. Take that first step, as many times as you need to.”