The dual engine needed to tackle youth unemployment and the talent shortage crises

Leanne Emery-Hunter, COO at the Youth Employment Service (YES). Image supplied.

Leanne Emery-Hunter, COO at the Youth Employment Service (YES). Image supplied.

Published Mar 10, 2024


By Leanne Emery-Hunter

It is not news to anyone that South Africa faces a conundrum on both ends of the employment spectrum: on one hand we have a crippling youth unemployment crisis, with 6.84 million young people aged 15–34 unemployed, according to the recent Statistics SA Quarterly Labour Force Survey. On the other, we have a persistent talent shortage impacting business growth and gross domestic product (GDP).

According to Career Junction, South Africa is experiencing a critical skills shortage across almost all sectors, with an urgent need for skills in the IT and finance sectors. The crux of the problem lies in a misalignment between the skills South African employers demand, and the skills our young people possess.

We know that our education system is failing to equip our youth with the practical skills and industry knowledge needed to hit the ground running. In fact, a recent study showed that 8 in 10 grade 4 pupils in South Africa cannot read for meaning. Many young people also don’t have access to the social capital and networks that could propel them to greater career success.

This mismatch creates a vicious cycle: not only is our economy not growing fast enough to create enough jobs for young people to be absorbed into the labour market, but young people also lack the skills for available jobs, exacerbating the crisis. Even if we were somehow able to fix some of our structural problems and our economy started to grow more rapidly, many businesses would not have the skills they need to be competitive.

Interventions that build skills through on-the-job work experience, therefore, are critical to unlocking a brighter future for our youth, our businesses and our nation.

A renewed focus on skills development will need to go beyond traditional academic training and encompass:

Technical and vocational training: equipping youth with in-demand technical skills like coding, data analysis and renewable energy technologies, aligning them with growing sectors.

Soft skills development: fostering communication, teamwork, and critical thinking skills, preparing young people to thrive in any work environment.

Entrepreneurship education: empowering young people to become job creators rather than just job seekers can unlock potential and contribute to economic growth.

Skills alone, however, are not enough. Job seekers so often find themselves locked in the “experience trap”, where they are unable to get experience without a job, and vice versa. According to Stats SA, a young person is seven times more likely to transition into employment if they have had some work experience, but traditional internships often prove inaccessible, leaving young people without critical workplace exposure.

At YES, we have seen many times over how on-the-job quality work experience accelerates growth. When you place someone with high potential into a job where they can learn on the ground, they not only upskill faster, but build networks and gain the experience that is foundational to career success. Even if they go on to be entrepreneurs, having prior work experience is critical.

Solving South Africa’s youth unemployment and talent shortage crisis requires a collaborative effort. Government, the private sector and educational institutions need to work together to create a skills-driven ecosystem. Obviously, economic growth and structural reform are key to long-term change, but we have seen success in interventions that are collaborative, purposeful and demand-led.

YES is a great example of a public private partnership that is working, where the private sector has funded more than 135 000 jobs in five years, injecting R7.1 billion into the economy through youth salaries, with no government funding. The partnership lies in the B-BBEE incentive that businesses gain in joining the programme, while integrating YES into their environmental, social and governance strategies.

Demand-led jobs are of critical importance in this economy. As we contemplate strategies to solve youth unemployment, we need to place youth in sectors that will help them to be employable over the long term such as digital, the green economy, tourism and global business services. Only then can they begin to change the landscape, and perhaps even become employers themselves.

By investing in skills development through work experience, we can unlock the immense potential of our youth. Not only will we address the unemployment crisis, but we will also cultivate a skilled and empowered workforce that drives economic growth and social prosperity for all South Africans.

Leanne Emery-Hunter, COO at the Youth Employment Service (YES).