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The kids aren’t alright

A new McKinsey report has a few ideas.

“When we were young the future was so bright
The old neighbourhood was so alive
And every kid on the whole damn street
Was gonna make it big and not be beat

Now the neighbourhood’s cracked and torn
The kids are grown up but their lives are worn
How can one little street
Swallow so many lives”

I’m probably showing my age here but the above lyrics come from a song release by The Offspring in 1998 entitled “The Kids Aren’t Alright.” Without going into too much detail, it spoke about how the American dream was slowly dissipating and kids were not able to find jobs for a variety of economic and social reasons.

The lyrics perfectly capture the biggest socio-economic issue facing South Africa today – spiralling youth unemployment.

In a new report from consulting group McKinsey titled “How business and government can bring young people into work”, researchers show that 51.4% of 15 to 24 years olds are unemployed in South Africa. We are second to Spain with 55.5% and Italy comes in third place with 40%.

We clearly have a problem and it is not a new one: the youth out there are unemployed and unemployable and they are creating an enormous drag on economies across the world. The McKinsey report found that in Europe, two-thirds of companies couldn’t fill basic entry level positions and the European Union was forking out €153 billion a year, or 1.2% of gross domestic product (GDP) every year in supporting the unemployed and unemployable.

This situation is not new – although government policy makers want to be watching Spain quite carefully to see how big protests can get when half your youth is not working – but what I did enjoy about the McKinsey report was some insight into how Berlin was able to knock 13% off its youth unemployment numbers in just two years.

Here is how they did it:

1. Work became part of regular schooling curriculum:

Twelve-year-olds begin the exploration with company visits (one to two days); students in grades seven and eight complete short-term internships (one week), and ninth and tenth graders perform full-fledged internships (three to four weeks) to experience being part of the world of work. From 12 years old they are being taught why schooling might actually matter and they are learning about getting into the real world and putting experience on their CVs.

2. They taught teachers about the real-world

Teachers receive training on occupational profiles, labour-market trends, and how to coach students on applying for jobs. The most watched TEDx talk of all time is delivered by educationalist Sir Ken Robinson. He points out that the majority of teachers are still training kids to fill jobs as dictated by the Industrial Revolution. Without knocking teachers, many of them would find it very difficult to transition from teaching into mainstream employment unless they have a practical skill set and yet these are the people who are teaching our kids how to get jobs.

3. Vocational training is a big thing in Germany

Local government works incredibly closely with businesses in the area as well as tertiary education initiatives and apprenticeships are a big thing. Following their mergers with mainstream universities, Technikon systems have all but disappeared in South Africa. And the decisions to do away with the apprenticeship and artisan programmes have crippled our skills base in many areas.

The problem we see in South Africa is that the longer somebody in the youth bracket doesn’t find work, the harder it is for them to get their foot in the door. Berlin invested a lot of time providing a safety net for those who were not quite ready for vocational training (skills-wise) and they worked with businesses to ask them what skills they need.

4. They track graduates and they intervene

Berlin established the Jugendberufsagentur which was effectively the Youth Employment Agency whose job it was to track graduates through the latter part of their schooling and move them into some vocational track or intervene when there were issues.

Every year in South Africa the papers will publish a story about some student who has achieved five or six As in matric but doesn’t have the money to go to university. This often runs parallel to a story about how there are stampedes at the gates of our major universities that can’t accept the influx of students. This runs right alongside a story about funding shortfalls. The system is broken and the irony is that if there was some coordination, these high-level kids could be absorbed into businesses and given skills and bursaries.

Comparing any major South African city with Berlin is clearly nonsensical but they are doing some really interesting things and we can learn from them. If we don’t make big strides to tackle youth unemployment in this country soon, then we are in serious trouble.

President Zuma made the right noises in his recent State of the Nation address with the announcement that 12 new Technical and Vocational Education and Training College campuses and the refurbishment of two existing campuses would bolster the system, but the real litmus test is going to come down to how these integrate with the business communities around them.

Give the report a read, it is well worth it.

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