“A nation that does not take care of its youth has no future and does not deserve one” – OR Tambo
The government’s theme for this year’s Youth Day is “25 Years of Democracy: A celebration of Youth activism”. President Cyril Ramaphosa commemorated youth month by addressing the unemployment rate and the economy. Clearly economic empowerment is critical if we are to achieve genuine transformation. We cannot continue to suffer so many young people out of work, with little hope of a brighter future. We must create opportunities for youth that allow them to take their place as economically active members of society. But there is more to empowerment than youth development. Young adults need the life skills and attitudes that will enable them to capitalise on the opportunities that arise and we as a nation need to engage our youth in our decision-making processes.
South Africa is a country dominated by youth. 52% of our population is under the age of 25. Take a minute to let that sink in. Half of the people in this country have not yet entered the work force or are in the very early stages of their careers. While many countries in Europe have a ticking demographic time bomb at the other end of the age spectrum, with people living longer and a declining birth rate (meaning there are more pensioners who must be supported by fewer earners), on the African continent we have a youth bulge. Arguably the continent has the largest youth population in the world. In conventional economic theory, a young population is correlated with economic development, because it creates domestic demand, benefiting domestic firms.
However, in contrast to this advantage, there is a lack of jobs available to young people in Africa. According to the UN, the working age population is set to more than double in sub-Saharan African countries between 2015 and 2050. The workforce is growing at a faster rate than the jobs available in both public and private sectors, creating un- and underemployment. In South Africa right now, young people constitute nearly 75% of our overall unemployment level of 26%.
What are we doing about it?
South Africa is officially in recession (see “Technically speaking, we’re in recession” for more information on what this means for business). This is not good news for youth. In a recessionary environment companies are less likely to expand and create new jobs. There are fewer business start-ups. Turnover is lower among existing employees which limits the number of new vacancies arising. However, it is not all doom and gloom. There are policies in place that seek to give our youth a chance to enter the job market and become economically active. An example is the Employment Tax Incentive Act, which allows companies to claim back some tax for employing young workers for two years.
We have 23 active SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities), which are responsible for skills development in their respective sectors. This includes meeting the training needs of new entrants to the labour market and the promotion and registration of learnerships.
The recently enhanced B-BBEE legislation allocates more points to Skills Development and Enterprise & Supplier Development, both of which contribute to youth economic empowerment.
Subsidies and skills development will not solve youth unemployment on their own. But they will help inexperienced school-leavers and graduates gain access to the job market and improve their prospects. Beyond that, investment in human capital is critical to unlock the potential represented by our youth. Education reform is badly needed to equip young people with the skills and technical know-how needed to succeed in work.
Ultimately, while government can provide incentives, it is up to the private sector to create vacancies, whether learnerships, internships or entry-level positions. Many companies have made a clear and visible commitment to youth employment and have introduced programmes designed to create opportunities for young workers. Here at EOH we launched the EOH Youth Job Creation Initiative in 2012, to stimulate job creation through interaction with our customers, business partners and Government. Since then, more than 1800 interns and learners have taken part in the EOH programme and more than 70% have been permanently employed. Partner programmes have added more than 8000 jobs nationwide.
While not every organisation has the capacity to create opportunities for youth on this scale, lack of scale should not be a reason for not acting. Research by Global Entrepreneurship Monitor shows that small businesses create more than 50% of all employment opportunities in South Africa and contribute more than 45% of GDP. SMMEs are uniquely placed to create employment openings and develop entrepreneurial skills. If every SMME introduced one learnership or took on one more intern, the impact would be significant.
Youth empowerment vs. youth development
However, while it is not necessary for every organisation to be able to employ youth at scale, it is important that there is a collective, concerted commitment to youth empowerment. Experts in empowerment theory make a distinction between developing the capacity of the individual youth and empowering youth to become change agents in society. The latter creates greater community change and ultimately societal transformation. Organisations that have a youth development mentality and framework may be doing a good job of developing individuals but are not addressing the social inequity that exists or changing the source of the problem.
Empowerment involves connecting the individual outcomes with the wider social and political agenda, and most importantly engaging the individuals concerned in decision-making. Empowerment is a process in which responsibility and power is shared with young people. Our youth represent human capital that is an important determinant of our long-term growth as a nation.