South Africa’s youth speak out on the high cost of finding work

Young people understand the value of education but find fees prohibitively high in a context of widespread unemployment and low incomes. REUTERS/Mark Wessels

The voices of the youth are often neglected in discussions about the problems they encounter in finding work. Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges young people face globally. But the absence of young voices on the subject stands in the way of understanding and solving the problem.

Youth unemployment in South Africa is a problem – and it appears to be getting worse. Between 2009 and 2014, the share of 15- to 34-year-old youth in the working population of the country fell from 42.6% to 39.8%. And in the first quarter of 2016, the unemployment rate (including only active job-seekers) for 15- to 24-year-olds was about 55% – up 5% on the previous year.

The Centre for Social Development in Africa at the University of Johannesburg conducted research among employed and unemployed 18- to 25-year-olds in five of South Africa’s nine provinces. It focused on their experiences of unemployment, employment and job-seeking.

The research, to be published soon, will hopefully amplify the voices of youth and thereby inform more realistic interventions to combat a serious developmental problem. Youth insights point to issues that are rarely considered in policy making circles. Three are highlighted in this article:

  • the problem of accessing higher education;

  • the costs of looking for work; and

  • exploitation.

Higher education

Young people understand the value of education, particularly higher education. But, as recent student protests have shown, the cost of a university education is prohibitively high in a context of widespread unemployment and low incomes.

As one of the survey respondents, from Orange Farm in the Gauteng province, said:

Without skills you are nothing, matric [South Africa’s school-leaving certificate] is nothing, so that’s why I am here now because I do not have skills.

When students were awarded bursaries or loans by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to attend university, it was common for these only to be paid out months after the academic year had started. But costs like transport, books, and registration and residence fees had to be covered immediately. Because their families were not in a position to support them financially, such students were at risk of dropping out of university.

The costs of finding work

Youth face many more immediate challenges in their search for work, including the costs of looking for work and filling out applications.

There are no functional job centres where relevant, up to date information about job openings and job advice can be found. Most youth find this information on the internet or in newspapers. They also often have to use the internet and computers for job applications. Few have these resources at home, so they are forced to use (sometimes distant) internet cafés.

In addition, many employers demand paper applications, which entails the costs of printing, copying, certification and postage.

A Cape Town respondent spoke of the cost:

It was in June or May this year I applied for a job, right, but the cost was to go to the post office to post those application forms. I think it cost me, like, R23. It was an envelope, a brown envelope plus photocopies. I think it was R50 with transport to town.

The general finding is that these job-seeking resources and services are inordinately expensive for people without regular income, and this limits the frequency with which they apply for positions.

In addition, young black South Africans typically live far from where jobs are located. This makes it expensive to travel to interviews or apply for jobs in person. A return trip is in the region of R30-R40 (about US$2-$2.63). For working people, this may mean spending more than a third of their monthly income on travel. For those hunting work, the costs are prohibitive.

Exploitative practices

A third and particularly disturbing finding is the exploitation of work-seekers’ vulnerability. Respondents repeatedly spoke of fraudsters advertising nonexistent jobs, soliciting payments for processing applications or for pre-job training.

These often large payments are made to what appear to be legitimate and professional employers or agencies advertising on the internet, in newspapers or by text message.

According to a respondent from the North West province,

I also got a message. Last year. That guy told me, at least give me R2,500 and I will give you a job at the mine. I said, “Wow! I’ll see what I can do …’

When applications are made in person, gatekeepers like human resources managers and secretaries frequently solicit bribes to ensure applications are considered rather than discarded:

Where are you going to get money to bribe this person? You are not working, you are looking for a job and you are expected to pay before even getting your name in the company’s books … Where are you expected to get the money from? You don’t have the bribe money, you are out. – East London respondent

Several young women and men also spoke of being asked to perform sexual favours to improve their chances of securing a job. A respondent from Johannesburg said: ”… there was a guy there and he said I am cute and if am willing to do some little things for him he can definitely give me a job.“

The need for intervention

The costs of looking for work often lead to the perverse outcome where job-seekers, having fallen into debt to meet these costs, find themselves worse off than before and even unable to pay for basics like food. Many respondents told us of tensions and strained relationships and, less frequently, trouble with moneylenders.

While young job-seekers were mostly not deterred from trying to find work, these obstacles point to the need for sustained, local-level and accessible interventions – informed by young people. Some feasible interventions include:

  • universities and financial support agencies improving the efficiency of their administrative operations to ensure prospective students are paid loans and grants timeously;

  • employers simplifying the job application process. They could, for example, stop demanding onerous documentation like hard copies;

  • government (and others) opening accessible and functional job centres where authentic information can be accessed at a low cost. These should include subsidised application-related resources like access to the internet, printers and certification facilities;

  • job-seekers being able to access publicly-funded travel subsidies; and

  • law enforcement agencies cracking down on job fraudsters and extortionists.