“Entry-level position available. Looking for a candidate with five years of work experience and professional qualifications.
A master’s is also required.”

Ask any university graduate about their job search experience, and they will share a similar paradox to the one above. It’s the classic case of seeking to get work experience, only to be told that you need work experience.

The cycle has become so economically damaging that President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed it on Youth Day, stating that: “Employers need to understand that, for our country to succeed, for their businesses to thrive, they must take responsibility for providing young people with the work experience they need … They must realise that the only way [for the youth] to get work experience is to get work.”

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Ramaphosa also said that, when university graduates are not employed, then the skills and know­ledge invested them is wasted.

South Africa has an unemployment rate of 26.7%, with youth accounting for 38.2%. According to Statistics South Africa, youth unemployment is high irrespective of education level.

Ramaphosa highlighted two consequences of this recruitment problem — stunted economic growth and wasted talent — that highlight why companies need to change their attitudes to youth and work experience.

Demographic dividend

Africa has the youngest population in the world. Nearly 50% are below the age of 18 and this category will continue to increase — rapidly.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) predicts that, by 2050, 40% of the world’s children under 18 will live in Africa. This is both an opportunity and a burden for the continent.

Our youthful population will be a burden if we do not take action now to empower young people.

Unicef describes the continent’s youthful population as a “demographic window of opportunity”. Countries such as Singapore and Japan have ageing populations that bring major economic costs, but our population has a larger share of working-age people, which presents the possibilities of disposable income, greater investment and accelerated economic growth.

South Africa is classified as an early-dividend country, meaning that there is a relative increase in the working-age population. This increase presents opportunities for growth and employment, but companies are not taking advantage of this opportunity.

Developing skills

Unicef advocates for investment in African youth; one of the most important pillars of investment is skills enhancement to match future labour market needs. Skills development can only be achieved if young people have jobs so that they can learn from the environment around them and develop in their fields.

Between the 1960s and 1980s, South Korea also experienced this demographic window of opportunity and is renowned for achieving accelerated economic and human development, because there was a focus on “well-trained human capital”. Today South Korea has a strong economy, with excellent human capital.

The South African government has adopted a similar strategy: it has launched various initiatives to create more jobs for youth, but private companies are lagging behind.

The demographic dividend means that youth need to be hired and trained so that South Africa can emerge as a leader that provides solutions to the complex problems of our continent. As our populations increase, particularly our youth populations, we need to ensure that we are equipping them with the skills to be able to grow Africa. An investment in youth is not only an investment for the respective employers, but also an investment in the development of the continent.

Three years ago, the Daily Maverick named “the student” as the 2015 South African Person of the Year, and stated that “the youth of the nation raised their fists and reminded us what true leadership is”. This recognition came after students stood together in several movements, from #RhodesMustFall and #OpenStellenbosch to #FeesMustFall. Students addressed pertinent issues: education and elitism, racism and colonialism. Their boldness displayed the exceptionalism of young South Africans.

Sadly, because of the cycle of “need work experience to get work experience”, many of these exceptional young people have or are relocating to the Americas or Europe. They aren’t moving because the grass is greener on the other side. In fact, they would do anything to be based in South Africa. They are relocating because they need to earn a living. If South African companies won’t employ them because of their lack of formal work experience, companies in Poland or India will.

This brain drain is counterproductive for Africa because not only is exceptional talent leaving the continent, these young people are also the future leaders who could address the problems of our rapidly growing population. The South African labour market is fast divesting itself of talented youth because of its paradoxical hiring policies. This needs to change now.

Perhaps companies are purely profit-driven and, consequently, they view skills development and training as burdens on their profit margins. But companies must understand that they also exist to develop people. In South Africa, these companies are especially responsible for developing the skills of those who were disempowered by the previous regime.

The costs of skills building should not be seen as a burden that reduces company profits, but rather as an investment in human capital, not only for the firm but also for society at large.

Companies and institutions of higher education must work together to ensure that, once young people are equipped with the necessary know­ledge, they can put it into practice immediately after graduation.

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This generation is as unique as it is passionate about social change and its effects. So, when they get work experience, not only will they work hard to perform well in their jobs, they will also reinvest those skills in other areas that they are passionate about. This will have positive effects on the country.

Last year, I spoke at a conference about why corporates need youth activists, and I ended my speech with the following statement: “It is difficult to transform and lead the society of tomorrow with the leaders of yesterday.”

Companies need to hire young people, work with them and empower them so that together companies and young people can contribute to South Africa’s growth.

Farai Mubaiwa is doing an MSc in the political economy of emerging markets. She is a former analyst for strategy and operations consulting at Deloitte