In South Africa, youth unemployment is a perennial problem, exacerbated by a staggering skills shortage and a firmly entrenched despondency. It’s a multi-layered issue with roots that run deep. Youth unemployment has a monumental impact on our growth trajectory as a nation. Bright minds are stagnating, wondering where to turn to; budding careers are craving a jumpstart.
But with so many factors in play, this is no easy solve – and where, one wonders, do we even start? Erica Kempken, Director of Youth@worK, believes that a lot can happen in just one year.
Youth@worK provides unemployed youth with rock-solid support, a caring community, networking opportunities and, crucially, a 12-month placement. The aim is to empower young South Africans, to help them gain invaluable experience and carve out a place in the job market. It’s a true taste of the workplace and a real step up towards finding permanent work or meaningful self-employment.
It sounds like a dream come true for a promising employee to be, but there are certainly challenges to overcome, particularly when it comes to a lack of foundational skills holding young people back. Kempken is particularly concerned when it comes to the basics.
‘There are lots of skills gaps in terms of formal skills, but overarching is the soft skills,’ explains Kempken. ‘Punctuality, being trustworthy, being accountable... we have youth quitting and not having the attitude or the growth mindset.’ ‘First we have to have young people show up. We have to start with getting the fundamentals right – the fundamentals in mindset and skills set, as well as in education.’
There’s no denying the value of a solid foundation, yet it’s important to remember the myriad challenges that young people find themselves up against. It’s tough out there, both socially and economically. Could it be that young people are falling short because they are battling to muster the will? ‘We work with a lot of applications,’ notes Kempken, ‘so I’m still thinking that youth are willing. They are wanting and they are still trying. However, we have a high drop-out rate in youth programmes. We don’t see the resilience and the grit that is needed.’
Another issue is the ease of the hustle shuffle – bouncing from one job to another in search of greener pastures, so appealing and easy to achieve in the right online spaces.
‘There’s a lot of jumping around,’ laments Kempken, ‘and that does not build foundational skills. Her plea is for South Africa’s trigger-happy job seekers to stick it out rather than hopping from job to job before vital experience is gleaned.
Of course it’s easy to critique young people and call them out, but Kempken acknowledges that the problem sits partly with employers as well, especially regarding understanding and trust.
Says Kempken. ‘There’s a lack of confidence. There’s a lack of experience and exposure. But there’s also a lack of understanding from the workplace side – where are we missing each other?’
Perhaps supervisors aren’t patient enough. Do they have a proper grip on the needs and shortcomings of young employees? Sensitivity is paramount. Mentorship is critical. Open lines of communication are essential.
There’s no denying that there are willing minds ready to burn bright and plenty of eager South Africans chasing stability and purpose. Kempken believes that a key piece of the puzzle is a willingness to learn – and to continue learning. Luckily, we have an abundance of online resources and platforms.
‘The skills that are needed today are not the skills that are needed tomorrow. Ongoing learning and a culture of adaptability and flexibility is what we all need to get used to. That’s something that we need to do together.’ Lastly, if we’re one step closer to cracking the code, it’s with a nod to selfemployment and the power of entrepreneurship. Our short-term employment trajectory may be worrisome, but maybe we need to keep the faith. ‘Self-employment is an answer,’ says Kempken. ‘Young people are hustlers. If we can grow them from hustlers to businesses, we’ve got a good chance.’