Youth, Inequality and the Labour Market Workshop
How to craft a better future for youth
The challenges of South Africa’s alarming rate of youth unemployment, and the most feasible policy options to create a better future for our youth, were squarely on the agenda at a recent policy workshop on Youth, Inequality and the Labour Market jointly convened by the Poverty and Inequality Initiative (PII) and the Research Project on Employment, Income Distribution and Inclusive Growth (REDI3x3).
The workshop held on Tuesday 19th April aimed to bring policymakers and researchers together to engage on what sort of policies would be most effective in steering the country towards a new and more inclusive development path. It was attended by a range of academic researchers, NGOs which are pro-active in helping young people make the difficult transition between school and employment, and policymakers.
The workshop was opened by Dr Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of UCT, who said the profound problems in basic education frequently trap young people in poverty. “We are all desperate for solutions, particularly those without jobs,” he said.
“The question here today is what we can learn from people on the ground – millions of smaller interventions out there that we may be overlooking.”
He also emphasized the need for evidence-based policymaking and the central role researchers could play in this.
Researchers such as Vimal Ranchhod of SALDRU and Lauren Graham of the CSDA at the University of Johannesburg sketched the size of the problem. Ranchhod said data from the QLFS showed that unemployment widened as people entered labour market “but even when it stabilizes, only about half of 29 year olds have a job.”
His analysis of data from the National Income Dynamics Study unveiled some of the nuances in youth employment:
• Those who migrate from rural to urban areas are more likely to be employed
• Men are more likely to be employed than women
• Higher education changes career paths
Lauren Graham said there were many negative perceptions about young people but in fact most were actively trying to find work or access to training opportunities. However the effects of rejection are” serious”. Policies need to focus on how to support youth, she said.
The role of the informal sector was a central focus of a session called “Breaking the barriers to the labour market.” Several speakers said distinctions had to be made between “survivalist” informal sector jobs and “growth-orientated” businesses. But the reality is that few young people can become entrepreneurs without the necessary skills.
Andrew Charman of the Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation, said “work” and “jobs” needed to be viewed differently to boost the informal sector. Hobbies could turn into jobs, and all work – such as assistance for community members – could be made into jobs.
However, poor access to tools in townships, inadequate access to ICT, and a poor work ethic were obstacles in expanding a viable informal sector.
Ian Macun, a senior official of the department of Labour, responded to the inputs. He agreed with many of the obstacles that had been highlighted, including the high cost of transport in job searches. He said it was important to build more strategic partnerships between NGOS, the private and public sectors.
A range of NGOs involved in helping youth enter the labour market also spoke. Harambee’s Nicola Galombik, said the organisation, supported by the Treasury’s Jobs Fund, works with about 250 employers in an attempt to place young people in jobs. Transport, skills – including social skills – and numeracy were key factors in placing young people successfully.
A central question that emerged from some policymakers was whether interventions such as this and others actually raised the level of employment among youth or simply “changed the queue”.
Galombik said changing the queue “really matters”: to put a young person from a poor family in employment could have a range of positive consequence from increasing family income to enhancing the life chances of younger siblings.
Policies, and their cost, were also assessed. Ronette Engela of GTAC, said there were pressing policy choices to make in relation to NSFAS, for instance, and in the funding of TVETs. In the case of NSFAS, repayments had dropped considerably making funding of future generations of students difficult. The TVETS, although they absorbed considerable funding, were frequently not turning out sufficiently skilled people.
Michael Sachs, head of the Budget Office in the National Treasury, closed the conference with some grim reminders: this year will be the 40th anniversary of the Soweto Uprising which was presaged by economic downturn and a “massification” of the education system, which resulted in more people receiving education but of an inferior quality. He also addressed the role of intermediaries, asking how important it was to “change the queue?”
Referring to the systemic problem of low growth and low labour absorption, he asked: “How would we design our interventions on the assumption that those problems would never be solved? “
There are three policy options on the table, he said: a vast expansion of TVETs, an option still to be costed; an expansion of public works programs, and an expansion of the social grant system (which currently covers those below 18 and those over 60)
These were tough policy choices to be made in a difficult environment “and we do not have a lot of time to make them”.
But we could not abandon the quest to improve education, specifically ECD. The uprisings of 1976 “gave us consciousness and empowerment. We need to give that to young people as much as possible.”