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South Africa has taken steps to help young jobless people. Here’s what’s working

South Africa has among the worst youth unemployment rates in the world.

South Africa has among the highest youth unemployment rates globally, with 58% of 15-24 year olds not in jobs, education or training. In times of economic crisis, young people are the first to lose jobs and the last to gain them back.

That means that now and into the future, as the economy reels from the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant lockdown, these rates are likely to only worsen. South Africa has a very young population with about a third of the population being between the ages of 18 and 34 years.

So what should be done?

Our research shows that youth employability programmes play a crucial role in maintaining young people’s resilience and sense of agency in a context in which there are high levels of joblessness. These programmes provide young people with training and information to support their entry into the labour market, and are usually close to where young people live. Most provide a combination of technical skills training and personal empowerment inputs.

Given the social and economic consequences of this pandemic, now more than ever, it is crucial to think about how to construct meaningful youth programmes to support young people’s journeys into the economy.

Youth agency and resilience

Between 2013 and 2019 we tracked just under 2,000 young people who participated in youth employability programmes. The programmes and organisations that run them are Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator , loveLife’s groundBreakers programme, Afrika Tikkun Services, EOH, National Youth Service (run by the National Youth Development Agency), Fit for Life Fit for Work, Thabiso Skills Institute and Raymond Ackerman Academy.

The research found that involvement in such programmes had a number of positive outcomes for young people.

First, young people showed improved job-search resilience. They were less likely to indicate being discouraged with looking for work after they had been through the programmes. And they were more likely to be using diverse strategies for searching for work, and felt more confident about looking for work.

They also showed small improvements in their sense of self-esteem and self-efficacy (their sense of control over their future) after participating in the programmes. These are important markers of success in the context of significant difficulties that young people face, and may be important in the transition to employment in the longer term.

Often these changes are overlooked because of the focus on employment and earnings as indicators of programme efficacy. But they are crucial indicators to measure as the country seeks to support young people’s agency in contexts of increasing unemployment.

Improve young people’s prospects

Crucially, the study offers insight into what kinds of programme features work for different kinds of young people. The eight programmes that were included in the study all targeted young people who typically came from impoverished backgrounds. They also had limited access to formal post-secondary education and training opportunities. They are broadly reflective of the kinds of young people who struggle most to find work.

We found a set of crucial programme elements that boost the chances of employment for these young people.

  • Matching: Our research found that the programme feature with the strongest effect is matching. We show that connecting work seekers to employers (matching) was the most important programme element, and improves a candidate’s chance of finding work by 28 percentage points in the 6-30 months following their training.

  • Soft skills: the study also found that time spent on soft skills – including promoting a sense of confidence and future orientation, as well as supporting young people to take control of their plans for their future – delivers a significant and strong effect. The first month of soft skills training delivers a 7 percentage point increase in the probability of being employed. Soft skills training made a particularly strong impact for the most vulnerable.

Participants who had not completed school, and those who lived outside metropolitan areas, where jobs are mostly located, had a significant employment disadvantage upon entering the programmes compared to their counterparts who had finished high school and lived in urban areas. But access to soft skills training for the more disadvantaged youth helped to close that gap.

  • Financial capability training: Our research also found that receiving financial capability training improves the probability of being employed by almost 10 percentage points.

Implications of the findings

Young people in South Africa face multiple forms of deprivation. They also exhibit significant agency and resilience despite these challenges. Our research shows that placing young people at the centre of programme development, and working with them, can improve their resilience.

Further, different programme elements have different effects for young people. Including multiple components in youth employment programmes is crucial if the country is to address the multiple deprivations they face.

This study shows that multiple components of training are key, especially when targeting particularly vulnerable youth who face multiple life and labour market challenges. The more challenges young people face, the more programme features are necessary. Tailoring interventions to their different circumstances within the large unemployed population is, therefore, crucial.

While such programmes cannot replace economic growth as a strategy for improving employment outcomes, they nevertheless play a crucial role in supporting young people, and offering bridges to the world of work over time.

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