The recent contraction of the South African economy does not bode well for the country’s unemployment crisis. It follows a decade of weak economic performance where not enough jobs have been created to keep up with population growth.
But even if we imagine a vibrant and growing economy that creates jobs, too many young people would still struggle to find employment because of systemic issues that constrain their chances. Firstly, young people often enter the labour market with a skills deficit, and limited social capital.
Secondly, the costs of work-seeking – driven by large transport and data expenditures – are poverty-reinforcing for many already poor households that typically live far from economic opportunities. This, coupled with the absence of formal job-seeking support, makes it very difficult for employers and work seekers to connect.
The state, civil society, and the private sector have all been trying to address the issue through various labour market interventions. One example is youth employability programmes. They engage young people in technical and workplace skills training, and in some cases connect them to work opportunities. However, not much is known about their impact.
We conducted research in a bid to find some answers. Our study set out to assess what features of youth employability programmes worked well in helping young people find work.
Our findings show that programmes that offer matching have the biggest impact on employment success. Matching is when young people are trained based on employer requirements and where programmes enable an interface between employers and young work seekers to foster potential recruitment.
Connecting young people and employers
The study, launched in 2013, tracked 1974 people as they entered one of eight youth employability programmes that offered skills training at 44 sites across the country, and for two years after they completed their training. The programmes varied along certain dimensions – for example in whether they offered training accredited with the South African Qualifications Authority, matching services, or stipends – but all offered a combination of technical and general workplace and social skills, along with some advice and support on finding work.
The study participants were predominantly African (94,4%), women (60%), and from poor backgrounds – the demographic most affected by unemployment. Their average age on completion of training was 23.5 years and the vast majority (78%) had been unemployed for over a year when starting training.
We found that 28% of the young people had found and retained work two years after completion of a YEP, while 17% had gone on to study further for typically higher-level qualifications. While the proportion employed appears to be small, when compared to a closely matched sample drawn from the Quarterly Labour Force Survey, we see that participants are 11 percentage points more likely to be employed.
Nonetheless, despite participating in the programme, the majority of young people in the survey remained unemployed, with 40% of participants experiencing chronic unemployment (unemployment for at least a year) two years after completing the programme.
Which features work best?
We found matching to be the most persuasive programme feature. The positive outcomes from matching young people with the right skills directly with employers and orientating training to employer demands included:
a much higher probability of employment than those who did not receive matching, as well as a greater ability to retain a job;
for the unemployed, an increase in the number of job applications made, and the probability of still looking for a job, pointing to a greater belief in their own employability.
We also found that more time on general workplace and social skills improves the chances of finding a job. These skills, including time management, teamwork, and self-confidence, were most useful for those without a matric, those living outside a major metro, and those who were not part of a youth employability programme that focused on matching. This kind of training was also positively associated with young people being persistent in looking for jobs.
Interestingly, the provision of stipends, formal accreditation and programme duration didn’t play a significant role in improving employment success in this study.
Public policy implications
These findings provide critical insights into what we need to do to support young people as they navigate their way through the labour market.
Youth employability programmes are critical. They are easily accessible, low- to no-cost for young people, and offer support in a context of low investment in employment services for work seekers.
But it’s clear that matching is critical. Employers need to be connected with work seekers with the right skills. This could be done by ensuring that existing and/or new labour centres are sufficiently staffed and resourced for young people seeking information and advice. Employers (and particularly small businesses without extensive HR facilities) could also use these services to find employees who are right for them.
The evidence also shows that the negative effects of having less than a matric and living outside a metro area can be reduced by participation in a programme that devotes a good deal of time to general workplace and social skills. These general skills are also useful in cases where young people are not matched to a specific employer. The focus on general workplace skills within a programme that also delivers technical training confirms international studies that show how comprehensive programmes are important to support youth from vulnerable backgrounds.