Educating and empowering the youth starts with us

South Africa has one of the worst youth unemployment problems in the world, with some estimates holding that less than half the population under 35 are employed. The percentage of black African professional, managerial and technical workers aged 25 to 34 has dropped by 2% over the past 20 years, leaving that generation less skilled than previous ones – and less skilled than every other race and age group, according to a recently survey by Statistics South Africa.

Little has changed since 2009 when Stats SA last did the survey. As in 2009, 57% of people with less than matric remain unemployed, while those with a matric recorded unchanged unemployment levels of 38%.

More than 98% of children who should be getting a primary education do attend school - but simply being in school is not enough. We need our children to be educated properly. Only 35% of children in Grade 3 are able to pass the literacy and numeracy tests for that age group. Where are the skills going to come from that we so desperately need to create jobs in SA now and in future generations?

Business has a clear role to play in improving the situation. Strategically aligned corporate social investment initiatives can go a long way towards educational upliftment in our country. The Entelect Foundation, for example, provides curriculum tutoring, life skills advice and basic support to pupils and their parents in a number of communities in Johannesburg. We spend 10% of all pre-tax profits on school fees and basic expenses such as food and transport for these kids. It might seem like a small contribution when taken in context of the country’s dire needs, but for those families who receive the benefits, it means the world.

As the economy moves from primary and secondary-based to tertiary based, opportunities for unskilled and semi-skilled workers will decrease. Many citizens aspire to a university education, seeing it as a cure-all for unemployment. But it’s becoming increasingly evident that a back-to-basics approach is needed: a strong focus on equipping South Africans with a solid education from the ground up, particularly when it comes to literacy and numeracy.

Youth must also be encouraged to complete their schooling by providing them with a quality learning experience. As for tertiary education, youth who choose to study so-called scarce skills, like maths and science, will have the edge in the job market. To help this process, we sit on university advisory boards to help ensure that tertiary education and industry are aligned. More than 30% of our current staff base joined as graduates with no prior work experience.

Government and business need to work together to improve the employment situation. Government has the scale to reach the young and unemployed and make the long-term commitment needed to educate our children. The business community knows which skills are needed and what it takes to make someone employable.

There is a mismatch between formal-sector industry expectations and the understanding of first-time workers in terms of professionalism, specifically, timekeeping, etiquette, accountability. Many youth also believe that rising through the ranks is effortless. They are unprepared to start at the bottom and work their way up.

More businesses should also start focusing on training talented people who lack skills and experience, rather than poaching experienced employees from other companies.

However, businesses need support to do this. By improving subsidies, tax incentives, BBBEE initiatives as well as a loosening of laws that impede hiring in small businesses, the government can encourage companies to support skills development and job creation, particularly for black South Africans. There are a number of programmes that can assist with this:

• Encourage businesses to provide input into the way schools are run. Using expertise gained from years in the private sector, many businesses have the capability to provide effective support structures to schools to transform their management capabilities and make a real difference.

• Campaign for people to pursue teaching careers, improve teaching salaries, while investing in improving current teachers’ skills

• Assist companies to employ and train unskilled labour in a way that makes sense for each industry

• Support entrepreneurs who create jobs for themselves and others

Small business has the greatest potential for large-scale job creation. There is a lot that government can do to create an enabling environment for SMEs to access finance and training, among other things, to help them do better business. However, there is also a lot that business can do to contribute to solving the underlying problems in education and skills development. We can only make widespread improvements if we work together. This problem affects us all.

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