The key to fighting high unemployment among the youth is to forge an alliance among businesses, educators and the youth to build the skills that lead to entry-level jobs in future growth sectors.
This means businesses must play an active role in helping educators tailor their curricula to meet future requirements. Preparing the next generation for a mind-set of lifelong learning is crucial to drive South Africa’s competitiveness in the face of the fourth industrial revolution that is upending the nature of work across the world.
This undertaking is urgent, as South Africa’s youth unemployment is both an individual tragedy, as well as a community and socioeconomic one. Unemployment and poverty are linked inextricably as income from wages account for around three quarters of South Africans’ income. The youth carries a particularly heavy burden: an estimated 57% of South Africans aged 15 to 24 years were unemployed in 2017. Female youths are especially vulnerable: their unemployment rate exceeds their male counterparts by 12 percentage points.
Some indicators suggest the youth’s education levels have improved in recent years. Between 1996 and 2016, learners who completed matric increased from 3.7 million in 1996 to 11.6 million in 2016, or by 211%. But in spite of improvements in the youth’s general education levels, many businesses find it difficult to fill vacancies, especially those requiring specialist skills.
While fighting current levels of youth unemployment as a matter of urgency, South Africa must build a pipeline of future talent that can partake actively in the age of emerging tech. A worldwide survey of 10 000 individuals showed that one in three respondents are worried they could lose their job to automation. Already, the nature of work is shifting as emerging tech becomes integral to how businesses operate. New jobs are emerging for those who produce and manage these intelligent systems, as well as for those learning to work hand-in-hand with emerging tech.
The South African youth are moving with the changes, as 2015 saw one third of students enrolled in Science, Engineering and Technology (STEM) subjects. As young South Africans push for higher levels of education, especially in STEM subjects, they become better equipped to adapt to the technological changes caused by emerging tech. A relentless focus on ushering young South Africans into STEM subjects in schools and further education and training will be crucial to allow South Africa to take advantage of the wave of emerging tech that is shifting the nature of work globally.
In this context, educators and businesses must form an alliance to ensure that education programmes produce young workers with market-relevant skills. As a result, training strategies should be constantly updated to reflect evolving business needs in an ever more digital and automated workplace.
For the youth currently seeking employment in low- or semi-skilled jobs, an immediate solution is required. The Youth Employment Service (YES) is one of the first social compacts between government, business and labour to create one million job opportunities for young South Africans.
Armed with a year of work experience, a CV and employment letter, a young person’s chance of future work increases threefold and can see him or her leaping out of unemployment and into a lifelong career.
Through a two-pronged approach of incentivising the employment of young South Africans to allow them an entry into the workforce, as well as a longer-term focus on STEM to allow us to embrace and shape rapid technological changes, government, business and labour can turn around arguably the most significant socioeconomic challenge facing us today.
• Maura Feddersen is an economist at PwC.