An unemployed man holds a self-made advertising board offering his services as youth unemployment is at a record high. Picture: Nic Bothma/ EPA
An unemployed man holds a self-made advertising board offering his services as youth unemployment is at a record high. Picture: Nic Bothma/ EPA

SA needs programmes that will improve young people’s employability

By Opinion Time of article published Apr 19, 2021

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By Lauren Graham, Ariane de Lannoy, and Leila Patel

Youth unemployment is one of South Africa’s most intractable challenges, made worse by Covid-19.

Prior to the pandemic the unemployment rate (including people who had given up looking for work) was just under 70% for people aged 15 to 24. A year later the rate had increased to 74% – despite government investments.

So it is crucial to understand what interventions are working. But how do we evaluate whether youth employment programmes are successful, particularly when unemployment is caused by the structure of the economy?

The obvious answer, of course, is whether a programme results in a young person getting employed.

This is logical and easy to measure. It can easily be linked to the release of funding to programmes. And it allows for programmes to be compared. This was done in a systematic review of 113 programmes internationally.

However, as we have explored in several recent studies, there are a number of drawbacks to relying solely on job placement as an indicator of successful intervention.

Doing so misses out on outcomes that are equally important, or more so, amid high structural unemployment. These lessons are particularly important in economies that have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, where youth employment recovery will take time.

We make this argument based on several studies. One looked at long-term employment outcomes of 1 892 youth between 18 and 25 who participated in youth employability programmes over the period 2017-2018.

These are programmes run by NGOs, business and the state. They typically include technical and soft skills training.

The proportion of participants who found jobs and stayed in them over time was just 28% – somewhat better than a matched sample from the quarterly labour force survey data, but still low. But we also found evidence that programmes had other important outcomes. These included a continued positive orientation to the labour market, and improved self-esteem and self-efficacy – important attributes for managing the protracted transition to work in a low growth economy.

Given the fact that South Africa is facing a stagnant economy for some time, it is crucial that funders, policy makers and those working on youth employment interventions evaluate and invest in programmes on the basis of their ability to keep young people positively oriented towards the labour market.

The programmes should help improve their employability, even if the young participant is not yet able to find a job.

Outcome indicators that can more adequately measure these factors include enhancing job search resilience, promoting self-esteem and self-efficacy, and reducing discouragement. There are ample reasons to move away from evaluating employability programmes on the basis of employment outcomes alone.

Rather, a range of indicators should be used to track whether young people remain engaged, believe in themselves and keep trying to find a job.

This while developing the personal attributes that will make them attractive to future employers.

Each of these outcomes is more difficult to measure than a simple count of job placements.

But it’s not impossible.

Lauren Graham is Associate Professor at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg

Ariane De Lannoy is a Senior Researcher: Poverty and Inequality Initiative, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town.

Leila Patel is a Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg

*The views expressed here are not necessarily those of The Star or IOL.

The Star

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