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Youth Day's promise of inclusion is one that we can keep

By: Maryana Iskander, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator CEO

Last week’s Statistics South Africa Quarterly Labour Force Survey was a stark reminder that the “future of work” is no longer in the future. It has arrived, and it is here to stay. We must, once and for all, move past the traditional idea of a school leaver finding a straight path from education straight into long-term employment. Instead, we must solution around what the data has said for many, many years:  the new reality for young people is that they will ‘zig zag’ in and out of a rapidly transforming labour market where most entry-level work is short-term, transient, and non-linear.

In the face of such transformation, and with a youth unemployment rate now hovering at 63%, what can really be done for young people that doesn’t ring hollow?

Any solution must acknowledge the multiple broken systems young South Africans currently must navigate in their uphill search for work, and that the situation is particularly dire for young women, whose barriers to work-seeking are higher and harder than they are for young men.

We have seen in Harambee’s data that – even in the pandemic – most jobs are too far away for affordable transport. If there is an opportunity close enough, the application process is either intentionally designed to filter out candidates who don’t “know the game” or it simply does so by default, by being unclear (online forms and questionnaires written in bureaucratic shorthand), or expensive (requiring high-priced internet, printing, mailing, certifying or even traveling for multiple interviews). If these young people still somehow manage to get an interview, there is little chance they have enough exposure to successfully navigate this very specialised and formal style of encounter. And yet they keep trying: using grant monies intended for food and shelter to instead print CVs that will never be considered, or travel to apply door-to-door, the most inefficient and expensive way to look for a job. The great tragedy is that their tenacity and determination, which may be incredible assets to an employer, are completely invisible to the system.

What we know for certain is that these promising young people are often invisible to employers, and promising job or enterprise opportunities are in turn invisible to them. They are unable to access reliable, comprehensive information on what is available, much less what is most suitable for them personally. The result is a demotivating waste of time, resources and energy – and the high risk that they instead become so discouraged as to be dangerously disengaged and turn to the social ills of crime, drugs, or violence.

What can be done to change this: a radical re-organising of information around the young person.

It requires all of us who have something to offer young people – whether it is a job, a work experience, a volunteering role, a learning opportunity – to put it into a single place that makes the cost much lower for young people to see what is available near them, and what makes sense for them to pursue based on their geography, skills, and profile. This must also be a place where they can also grow their skills and profiles to access even more opportunities tomorrow than they can today.

As we mark Youth Day this week, a moment to make this change more real for young people has arrived. The Presidential Youth Intervention, first announced in last year’s State of the Nation address, represents a growing coalition committed to breaking down the barriers that keep young people locked out of the labour market. This initiative, supported by a dedicated project management office in the Presidency, feels different in its bias against soaring rhetoric and unachievable targets, and for its track record of swift action, rapid evaluation, and iteration.

Practically speaking, yesterday saw the launch of a partnership committed to this idea of radically reorganising information around the young person through a single, societal platform called SA Youth. Anchor partners include the National Youth Development Agency, Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, Department of Trade, Industry and Competition, Department of Science and Innovation, Department of Employment and Labour, Department of Higher Education and Training, Department of Small Business Development and the Youth Employment Service – and hundreds more who have joined them.

SA Youth represents breakthrough on several levels. First, it breaks through entrenched barriers through its very design: a zero-rated mobi-site (sayouth.mobi) and toll-free support line (0800 727272) ensures that cost keeps no one out, with opportunities sorted by what’s nearby, and with personalised recommendations for every young person, no matter how “unqualified”.

Secondly, it aggregates earning and learning opportunities from as many partners in a single place to serve up credible information to the young person, rather than sending them chasing from program to program, provider to provider, application form to application form. We believe this is innovation at a scale that can meet our crisis: the private sector, government, and civil society put their opportunities in a single place to be served up – for free – to millions of unemployed work-seekers, and also connecting them to the resources of hundreds more partners on the ground.

Finally, the SA Youth platform lays the long-term foundation for learning, tracking, and evolving with young people as they move in and out of these zig-zagging pathways and as they also carve new ones that others can follow.

This marks the first time that efforts of both state and non-state actors are being actively coordinated at this level of scale to support a diverse cohort of young people who are otherwise excluded from the labour market. It is a solution built not for a short-term recovery, but for the long-term reshaping of our economy. The future of work is here, and young people cannot wait for us to catch up. The good news is that we are starting to move more quickly.

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