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Early study results: Youth in South Africa face numerous barriers to employment

Even when youth in South Africa receive the education and technical skills needed to gain employment, many still face numerous barriers to finding and holding on to a job, according to a collaborative study from the UNC School of Social Work, the University of Johannesburg, and the Center for Social Development in Africa.

Associate professor Gina Chowa and assistant professor Rainier Masa are leading the research team for the “Siyakha Youth Assets” employability study. The four-year demonstration project launched in 2014 and involves 2,000 youth, mainly age 18 to 25—the group most affected by unemployment in South Africa, said Chowa, the study’s principal investigator.

Siyakha, which is Zulu for “we are building,” aims to examine what role employability programs play in helping young people find gainful employment and increase their earnings. The study also includes an asset-building intervention to determine if youth who receive savings information and are given access to bank accounts are motivated to save a portion of their income.

Long-term, researchers think the project could lead to evidence-based interventions that could prevent chronic unemployment and break the cycle of poverty that many families face, said Chowa, who along with Masa (co-principal investigator), presented the study’s early findings to partners and stakeholders in South Africa last month. (Jack Richman, associate dean of international programs at the School, and Sara Harwood Mitra, a research project manager, also attended the presentation.)

“What we’ve learned so far is that it’s not enough to train youth in technical skills and expect that they will somehow be successful in the labor market,” Chowa said of the study, which is funded by the Ford Foundation, The Jobs Fund, the National Youth Development Agency, and the University of Johannesburg.

For the first part of the study, researchers assessed the training outcomes of youth who participated in one of eight employability programs across the country. These programs target young people who are not in school, already employed, nor in training and focus on preparing them for their first jobs. The programs teach youth workplace readiness skills, such as computer literacy and interviewing techniques.

Although the study is ongoing, early findings show that youth, including college graduates, often lack information about the most effective ways to look for work and that they have limited access to social networks where they can seek employment advice, Chowa explained. Moreover, even when youth find jobs, many don’t keep them, she said.

“From what we know, retention in youth employment is very low and not because of a lack of technical skills but because of a lack of life skills,” she said. “They are not work ready. They don’t know how to report on time or to make sure they turn in their work on time or how to be a team player. They also don’t know how to dress or how to put their CV together. But these are the kind of soft skills that youth must have to respond to the needs and expectations of employers in the labor market.”

The study’s early findings also suggest that youth from poor communities often struggle to secure employment because many can’t afford to search for a job.

“It really is a delicate balance for some of these youth, especially if they are head of the household,” Chowa said. “They don’t have children of their own but because of the HIV scourge in South Africa, many have become responsible for their siblings at a very early age. So if they are doing anything that is bringing in any little income, they have to take care of the family. So then, they have to choose whether to go buy a bus ticket so they can apply for a higher paying job or whether to buy bread so the family can eat.”

Although the project’s primary focus is on employment, researchers recognize that unemployment is related to other outcomes, such as higher risk of adverse health behaviors and food insecurity, Masa said.

“For example, unemployed youth may engage in risky behaviors to earn income,” he explained. “So we are also investigating whether Siyakha has direct or indirect effects on these outcomes. Examining whether youth employment programs contribute to better health is salient in South Africa, which remains heavily affected by HIV/AIDS. “

Another round of data will be collected in nine months and again in 18 months, Chowa said. Although a very ambitious project in size and scope, the Siyakha study is generating needed dialog around the problem of chronic youth unemployment, she said.

“Our aim for this project is to provide evidence on what works for youth to enter the labor market so that policy makers can make informed decisions when addressing youth unemployment in South Africa,” Chowa said. “Engaging with stakeholders at the forum we attended was encouraging because we now have their attention.”