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Opinion Piece by CHIETA – Youth unemployment is not the problem, it’s the solution!

By Yershen Pillay

As a country, we spend billions of rands trying to eradicate the problem of youth unemployment and yet it remains stubbornly pervasive. Young people are more vulnerable to unemployment with the latest official youth unemployment rate standing at 44.3%, considerably higher than any other age group. According to Stats SA, approximately 3.4 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24 are not in employment, education, or training. The data suggests that youth unemployment is a ticking timebomb and this bleak picture has remained largely the same over the last decade.

But is youth unemployment really the problem? Perhaps we need to reframe the problem. If we apply an innovation lens, then youth unemployment is not the problem, but the solution. How is youth unemployment the solution?

First, it is the youth themselves who have become more resourceful under the current economic circumstances and therefore possess key insights, knowledge, and information that could lead to more jobs, for the youth, by the youth. Our standard approach has been to “push” solutions onto the youth for them to adopt and make do. However, these push strategies to youth unemployment have not rendered the desired results. Youth have not adopted the solutions we have “pushed” onto them for the last decade or so. As a result, the statistics have remained largely unchanged despite the expanded scope and increasing scale of youth employment programmes implemented by government and the private sector.

Secondly, you can “push” any incentive or certificate to curb youth unemployment, it will only serve the purpose of a temporary solution designed to address the symptoms and not the causal factors which are far more structural. The reality is that tax incentives, subsidies, or certificates have dismally failed both locally and globally. From an innovation perspective, a youth incentive or certificate is a “push” strategy which treats youth unemployment as a disease that must be managed with no suitable cure. This is not only an expensive strategy, but an ineffective one.

Thirdly, having a significant pool of youth who can be skilled to become positive, contributing citizens, presents a gargantuan opportunity to leapfrog the rest of the world in the potential scale of socio-economic development. We have a mass base of a productive, working-age population with the potential to produce significant youth dividends for the country. Getting our youth into formal employment is the biggest investment we can make as a country.

We need a new plan, an innovation-driven plan that aims to “flip the script” and turn the problem of youth unemployment into the solution. What would this plan look like?

First, a deliberate and intentional attempt to scale youth entrepreneurship with more access to government and business contracts, should all compliance and documentation be in place. This includes ensuring that youth enterprises are paid within 30 days and reliable support services such as being able to source a reliable and trustworthy accountant are provided to these youth enterprises. Government needs to rally behind youth enterprises and youth cooperatives. This would ensure that unemployed youth become job creators and not simply job seekers.

The second intervention is a co-creation platform for skills development programmes designed by youth and industry. Co-creating skills programmes in collaboration with youth and industry requires a coordinated approach by government and the private sector. Collaboration becomes essential for success. To cite an example, internships with higher absorption rates into fulltime employment are more impactful than simply reporting on high numbers of internships as a mere tick-box exercise. If industry does not have the means for an intern to be absorbed, the internship becomes unsustainable leading to a revolving-door syndrome after two years. The young intern is left with no opportunity of being absorbed into a fulltime job because the programme was never shaped by industry for industry, or by the youth, for the youth.

The third intervention is to invest into local economic development programmes that create new economies. These new economies would then create new jobs for youth. For example, a new economy around green hydrogen production would lead to new enterprises establishing themselves locally thereby generating a demand for new skills to sustain their enterprises. The new transformative economy would “pull” in employment opportunities needed to sustain the newly established green hydrogen production plants and facilities. This is more effective than a “push” strategy that forces the local economy to create jobs for youth through legislation, policy, infrastructure, or institutions, when the actual demand is non-existent.

High numbers of unemployed youth present an opportunity to educate, skill, and train a new cadre of youth capable of lifting South Africa out of poverty and into prosperity. If the masses of unemployed youth are empowered to take responsibility and co-create solutions to a problem which they have experienced first-hand, they may develop more sustainable solutions able to produce the desired results.

This presents youth and youth unemployment as the solution for progress and prosperity. Indeed, the problem without a solution, now becomes a solution to the problem. We need to stop focusing on fighting youth unemployment and redirect our efforts towards providing alternative substitutes for youth. A viable alternative enables a young person to “fire” hopelessness at home and “hire” participating in some form of positive and constructive work.

An innovation-driven approach requires us to contextualize youth as part of the solution, and not the problem. Youth have skills, knowledge, and agency. This can be deployed to find more innovative solutions to job creation for youth through a process of co-creation.

Transformative innovations that create new economies will lead to more jobs for youth. Economic growth does not lead to youth development, Innovation does! We need to apply an innovation lens to the youth unemployment problem in South Africa. This requires policy makers to realize that pushing solutions onto youth will not deliver meaningful results. We need to create new economies that will “pull” in the jobs that our youth so desperately need.

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