Corporates need to think differently about youth unemployment

by Jennifer Algie, People Director at Merchants

Government and business need to collaborate to grow the talent pool


Youth unemployment has once again been put in the spotlight during President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation address and corporate South Africa will have to start addressing some of the real challenges around accessibility if this is to be overcome. According to a new report issued by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in January, South Africa currently ranks 6th globally in terms of youth unemployment with a current rate of 52.5%. Immediate intervention is needed by South African businesses to prevent long term issues. This is the view of Jennifer Algie, People Director at Merchants, Southern Africa’s largest business process outsourcing (BPO) and customer experience specialist.


“One of the biggest challenges facing the majority of unemployed youth remains access to opportunities,” says Algie. “There are some who are ready to enter the workplace and simply do not know how to and there are others that have a clear will to work, but are not quite work ready,” she says. “Here corporate South Africa can play a tremendous role by partnering with organisations such as Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, who find unemployed youth, connect them with organisations who are looking for talent and provide them with work readiness skills to place within organisations.” Harambee, an organisation which sources, trains and places unemployed young people from disadvantaged backgrounds into first-time jobs, gives Merchants access to the 80% of potential candidates that the company would not otherwise have been able to reach.


Algie says the key thing is that companies have to make an investment in these first-time job entrants, by supporting them through the transition into a working environment and the underlying pressure they might experience in meeting family responsibilities. A caring and understanding approach results in a positive contribution to the youth.


Another opportunity is accessing graduates. “Being a graduate does not automatically mean that you have all the skills needed in the work environment,” says Algie. For years various industries have been saying that there is a gap between what the graduate is capable of and what the workplace requires. “We need more apprentice type programmes to equip these graduates with the skills they need so that they can thrive.”


Algie adds that in certain industries companies expect higher level skills for a job that might not really require, a practice which increases the entry level criteria and the salary requirements.  This also results in people saying we don’t have the right skills in the country. “Corporates can no longer take the easy way out and have to be part of the solution. They need to understand where the gap lies and put initiatives in place to bridge that gap.” With a philosophy of ‘our people and customers first’ Merchants has developed solid internal programmes to upskill their employees, which allows them to promote internally wherever possible, including taking graduates into leadership and support roles without contact centre experience.


Algie believes that the responsibility around job creation and skills development lies with both public and private sector. “There needs to be more government-funded projects such as Harambee as this is the only way to tap into the market of young people who don’t have the network to necessarily find opportunities,” she says. “In addition to that, corporates need to be more creative in what they do internally. Perhaps this is an opportunity for companies to look broader than their immediate needs and look at addressing the needs of the broader industry they play in.” While she doesn’t believe the learnership collaboration has worked across the board, she says the industry has an opportunity to grow the talent pool and should do it.


Algie has some advice for unemployed young people. “Never forget that you are an untapped talent that just hasn’t been discovered yet. Keep looking for that opportunity that could either be long term, or a stepping stone to something great for you.” The contact centre environment provides tremendous opportunities to start a career. “A number of our management team members started as agents in a contact centre. The key is to grasp the opportunity when it presents itself.”


While there is no denying that a lot is already being done to address youth unemployment, there is a lot more than can be done. “We get caught up in our own worlds and as a result we are not looking at the future. We need more focus and need to give more thought to how we can do things differently to address this problem,” Algie concludes.


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