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Technology the key to helping solve SA’s youth unemployment problem

The cost of the country’s unemployed youth could be as much as R7trn, notes Tashmia Ismail of the Yes Programme.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The two-day Finance Indaba Africa kicked off today [Wednesday, October 16]. The theme this year is Discover, Learn and Grow. The financial industry has made rapid strides in the area of technology with “fintech” the buzzword of the industry these days. The changing landscape is causing concern, particularly among the workforce as it’s becoming clear that technology has started to overtake the roles of human beings. But, of course, there are opportunities to upskill people so that they can play a role in the financial sector.

One of the speakers at the indaba was Tashmia Ismail, the CEO of the Youth Employment Service, and she joins me in the studio. Thanks very much for joining us, Tash.

TASHMIA ISMAIL: Pleasure.

NOMPU SIZIBA: In your capacity as CEO of the Yes Programme, you’ve been doing a lot of work to improve the fortunes of the youth. So, in the context of the Finance Indaba, what thoughts and ideas were you sharing, especially in a climate where people are concerned that their roles and jobs will be taken over by machines?

TASHMIA ISMAIL: The theme of our conversation with the financial management crowd at the indaba was very much around country, country building and country risk. You cannot build a successful company with AI or not in an economy that is failing or dysfunctional.

The South African landscape is faced with the massive issue of youth unemployment; it is the highest anywhere in the world. We are talking about 55.7% of youth being out of work; we are talking about a third of youth between the ages and 18 and 34.

What we tried to outline to the business leaders and people from the sector was that there is a massive cost to the country if we continue to exclude these young people from the economy. It was about giving them some of the numbers. There is an interesting book I’ve been reading that talks about a particular humanoid-type species in our history that spent a lot of time thinking about predators and figuring out how to sleep in trees. What actually caused that species to die off was some obscure gastrointestinal bug or bacterium.

This is what human beings do – we discount the future. We are constantly concerned about Eskom now, and do not look at this very scary long-term picture of what it’s going to cost the economy if we don’t get young people into work. Those were the numbers we presented, because these are the people who have the privilege of being able to create jobs, and to be clever about where those jobs are created.

The cost of an unemployed person over a lifetime is R1.2 million. This is a conservative number. If you take the 6.5 million young people who are not employed, and in many cases will never be employed, this is a cost of close to R7 trillion. Our GDP is R4.8 trillion.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That’s a heavy cost.

TASHMIA ISMAIL: These are the kinds of numbers financial services people need to understand. There is this big-picture issue.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Tashmia, we know that you partnered with Nedbank and it facilitated work opportunities for many young people. I forget the number – you will tell us. Given that that’s a financial services firm, what sort of opportunities has the bank been providing to these young people?

TASHMIA ISMAIL: This is where it’s interesting, because this is where the innovation comes in. While the banks might be shedding jobs on the first economy, there is massive opportunity through technology, through connecting with communities, to be able to open the jobs outside of our metros. The number with Nedbank is 3 340. Nedbank is one of 340 other companies that have joined Yes to create jobs. We are now on 25 570 jobs. In quarter one and quarter two of this year the jobs number dropped by 216 000. So our upward 25 000 is a lovely good-news story, with commitment by companies like Nedbank to make those jobs happen in communities, rural villages, through recycling programmes, conservation programmes, green energy. We have whale watchers, which is one of my favourite jobs. These are young people who make visitors to Durban aware of the whaling history in the area, but are also driving jobs in the tourism sector. So a bank is facilitating the creation of jobs across multiple sectors which have a lot of room for entry-level skills to be able to come into the market.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Excellent. I did see, earlier, that you put out a separate note, lamenting that we as South Africans – and I suppose the media is quite guilty of it – tend to push the negative narrative; you were saying quite the contrary. There is a lot for us to be positive about.

TASHMIA ISMAIL: It’s important to know the negative narrative. It’s important to be real about the numbers – that R7.6 trillion cost of not getting people to work.

But, at the same time, we’ve got to understand how we get creative and innovative about pivoting on that, and actually see the opportunity that young people represent if we can think differently about where and how jobs happen. There are a lot of pathways into careers for young people that are open – even if you don’t have a tertiary education – and how do we find more of those entry-level jobs. For a bank you are basing your business on transactions that go on in the market; and, if you have this many young people with no income, this is going to impact the bank in the long run.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That’s right – they won’t have customers.

TASHMIA ISMAIL: Exactly.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Okay. So, these are the kind of messages that you were transmitting to the audience that you were speaking to. What was the reception?

TASHMIA ISMAIL: They absolutely loved it. There was such an energy in the room to understand more of how we can get involved. I do think people are fatigued by the negative messaging and, if there is a vehicle that makes it easy to be part of a movement, a positive movement forward, they can see the impact that every single job has. One job has an impact on a household. If the job is with a young mother, she is going to feed her children better, she is going to keep them in school. She may not have more children; she’d have one or two kids because she’ll be in a  job. There are just so many ripple effects that come from every single job. When people are made to see those impacts and are given the numbers around them, it just changes their sense of what is achievable.

So, my sense was that people want to become part of something where the narrative is different. Show me how, give me a vehicle, and let’s build this thing.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Tashmia, you are doing whatever you can in your capacity as Yes to go and partner with other people, spread the word and so on, but obviously you are just one organisation. What do you think needs to be done more broadly in the economy to try and stimulate youth employment, and how important do you think it is for small businesses to have a more conducive environment for them to be creating jobs, creating youth employment?

TASHMIA ISMAIL: I think there are a couple of things. When you have agencies like Yes, it’s important  that we design ourselves as platform businesses so it doesn’t become just the power of Yes doing what it does. We are a platform with multiple corporates, multiple NGOs, and we’ve got partnerships with NGOs across the country. So we try to not silo our efforts, but we work as a collective, so we are not wasting money on the administration, and more gets to the beneficiaries. That’s one thing – that we need to change our design to open platforms.

The second is absolutely your point around small business. The current landscape of the country is highly concentrated. If we don’t generate new small businesses and scale existing small businesses, we will have no place for entry-level workers. It’s highly unlikely that an entry-level worker is going to make it into a sophisticated metro work environment. How do we find jobs closer to home for most young people?

I remember my first job was at my dad’s practice, a small business, a medical practice. My husband’s first job was selling ice cream at an ice-cream parlour. Its name was something with a C. We all get those first opportunities to learn and get our foot in the door and understand what it is to earn an income through that footprint of small businesses at community level, especially in South Africa, where spacial inequality is such a massive stumbling block to people getting opportunities. If we can perhaps have small businesses at community level in townships, in rural communities, say, servicing the Kruger Park. There is high unemployment in those communities surrounding the Kruger Park. Can the small businesses there service the park?

And by creating those small businesses that are able to do that and get that market access – that’s where the jobs are going to happen. You already know it. You are saying it: if we don’t make the environment more conducive to small businesses, cutting red tape, giving them that access, facilitating them with technologies, cheaper internet, cheaper Wi-Fi, those are the sorts of things that really make the difference.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Tashmia, you’ve got lots of ideas. You are buzzing. Thank you very much for coming and joining us in the studio.

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What a lot of feel good bunk. Young people are not prepared to work. They want everything for free in line with the ANC entitlement culture.

Au contraire, I have found that its younger colleagues that are hungry for work, but they lack essential skills that would make them employable.

If I compare the total hours I work today compared to what my dad had to do at my age, he had a much easier time of it.

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