Picture: Antoine de Ras

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's various institutions have, for a long time, been grappling with a key question: what are we to do about youth unemployment?

I recently attended a conference hosted by the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE), where this challenge was debated in significant depth.

A number of potential solutions were put forward but the issue that emerged as the most pressing was that of skills development; specifically, how can we develop the skills of South Africa's young people in such a way that they are employable for relevant jobs? And who should take responsibility for this?

One of the key insights that shaped the entire conference was the acknowledgement that “South Africa's education and skills training needs wholesale reform to ensure poorer citizens have access to quality education”.

This is an obvious truth if we are to achieve our key goal - dramatically increasing our skills pool. The problem, though, is how.

The importance of early childhood development as a basic foundation step, combined with primary and high school academic learnings that not only teach academia but also teach young people how to function appropriately within institutions like universities and in the work place.

File picture: Philimon Bulawayo

How can we expect youth whose experience has been oriented around township environments to learn the necessary study skills required when working within project teams, when the academic orientation in the schools is towards individual grades rather than holistic performance?

How can we help young, black, township individuals whose mother tongue is not English to feel confident around their counterparts, who have graduated from private secondary schools, unless there is a programme that assist these young people?

Afrika Tikkun youth development and career development programmes look to address these very basic practical issues, while at the same time recognising the importance of appropriate academic results.

One of the biggest issues faced by the youth is knowing what different career paths necessarily entail and whether they are suited for specific career directions. It's my belief that all youth development organisations need to give thought to how they are assisting young people to find their personal True North!

Another challenge is that our learners leave their schools and other places of learning ill-equipped to handle the real demands of the workplace.

Qualifications

The CDE notes that our policy makers have settled on a development strategy rooted in high productivity, high wage employment - which, although indeed desirable, doesn't make allowance for the thousands of young people attempting to enter the labour market without any formal qualifications.

Obviously, there's a lack of alignment between what our labour force is able to offer, and what our economy requires. At present, our systems place high emphasis on formal qualifications, when many young people are unable to access such learning. Which leads me to the observation that what South Africa truly needs if it is to increase employment is a reconfiguration of the skills production system.

Workplace readiness

The CDE notes that “a job is the most powerful motor for inclusion and enhanced human dignity.”

It further argues that, to create jobs, we need a model to grow employment; one which places less emphasis on formal qualifications. One of the reasons those who have been through our education system continues to languish is because they simply are not workplace ready.

They may well find employment, but they will continue to lag behind their peers who attended formal tertiary educations or who are exposed to family situations where commerce is a common discussion, because the nuances of the workplace remain just beyond reach.

The simple solution would be to look at the competencies of our matriculants, and consider how to develop jobs around these skills. This would be a far more pragmatic approach, as the reality is that many learners do not have the grades nor funds to access tertiary education.

A second alternative lies in providing an alternative to degrees or diplomas, equipping learners for vocational careers. This is why government has placed significant emphasis on expanding the network for technical and vocational education and training.

It would be a laudable strategy if the Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges tasked with providing this training are well administered. But, sadly, they're not: they continue to be viewed as a poor second choice for those not able to attend university by students, teachers and potential employers alike.

Yes, the government can address this by channelling more funds to improve the quality of resources and facilities available to TVET colleges. But I believe that the private sector has a critical role to play, too.

The sector is already involved, to a degree. For a start, many TVET colleges have been set up (either as for-profit or not-for-profit entities) by private sector companies; private sector employers also provide training and management support for public sector colleges.

But we can do more.

For instance, we need to focus on improving the quality of the colleges’ offering, and provide more support for those attending them.

Something else we can do is to focus on the training we provide in house to those who have come on board as members of our organisations. Too often we focus solely on technical competencies, neglecting aspects such as the social values which are key to ensuring an employee feels comfortable navigating their workplace environment.

Renowned

That is why Afrika Tikkun has developed a Cradle to Career model. We aim to foster the skills that will help a young person find employment, but perhaps more importantly we also look to nurture the development of social skills and values that will enable them to keep it.

In other words, we place equal emphasis on ensuring that graduates of our programmes are workplace ready; that they feel as “at home” as the colleagues who attended South Africa’s most renowned private schools and universities.

This comes about through the five pillars of our strategy: Care For Yourself teaches graduates the importance of prioritising their health and fitness; Innovation uses platforms like music to teach graduates to think of creative solutions to the challenges they encounter in their daily lives; and Grow Your Future gives learners a real experience of the workplace, so that they know what to expect when they take their places in a job.

The fourth programme component, Inspired Learning, focuses on ensuring children are exam-ready and improving their numeracy and literacy skills. Finally, our Saturday schools is an academic initiative which helps children with an aptitude for Stem subjects to develop their talents further.

It is our wish that other members of South African society join us in our quest to provide a solution for youth unemployment. We believe that because this is an issue that affects us all, it is one that we are all responsible for solving.

Because here's the reality: the work done by our charities is commendable, but it's not enough. We don't have the luxury of developing productive members of society for tomorrow. We need to collaborate today to ensure we are able to match the skills and competencies of today's learners with job opportunities.

The only way to do this is to see that the corporate sector aligns its CSI spend with its enterprise development spend, so that we can be sure there is a channel of individuals being developed in line with real job opportunities. As it is, development agencies rely on corporates not only to tell us which jobs they are recruiting for, but to capitalise on their various tax incentives and BEE scorecard initiatives so that we know that the learners we are training will, indeed, be able to find employment, even if it's through an internship.

If we don't collaborate in this manner, I fear our future will be a bleak one. The number of jobless will continue to grow, as will the number of people entering the workforce with no idea of what their real futures hold.

Let me ask you this: if you were a recent matriculant with no prospects for employment, what choices would you have?

Marc Lubner is the chief executive of Afrika Tikkun. Afrika Tikkun is an international NGO that invests in the development of disadvantaged youth in South Africa, from cradle to career.