By Fiona Wakelin
The Youth Employment Service (YES) is a 100% private sector-funded initiative which collaborates with business, government, labour, and other stakeholders to put thousands of young people into their first private sector job. We spoke to YES CEO, Ravi Naidoo, about the crucial issue of youth job creation in South Africa.
AS A SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT SPECIALIST, WHAT HAVE BEEN SOME OF YOUR MOST MEMORABLE MILESTONES OVER THE LAST 25 YEARS?
I have been fortunate to be able to have an impact on some significant issues. All of these had an element of the right place, right time, and right team. In my twenties, in the labour movement, I was part of the team that restructured the Unemployment Insurance Fund to include domestic workers, and one million people benefitted. A few years later I was in the Cabinet-appointed team that introduced the child support grant, which has seen an extra
16 million youth and their families benefit. When I joined the state, I was the lead executive for the establishment of South Africa’s official Green Fund. My favourite memory is when, as official DBSA convenor of the Health-sector Roadmap, I managed the stakeholder process that eventually changed the country’s disastrous HIV/ AIDS stance.
YOU JOINED YES IN NOVEMBER 2021. PLEASE DESCRIBE THE PROGRAMMES AND SERVICES OFFERED BY THE ORGANISATION.
We approach the private sector to create jobs (either within their organisation or via host partners that YES finds for them) for young people. In return, the private sector sponsor receives up to two levels on their B-BBEE scorecard and a positive social impact rating.
We are currently placing about 3 000 young people into jobs every month. YES kicked into action just before the COVID pandemic began – and has since created over 82 000 youth jobs. As youth employment is defined as a social impact, corporations that work with YES can be certified for their contribution to environmental, social, and governance (ESG) and Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) strategies.
WHAT HAVE BEEN YOUR FOCUS AREAS OVER THE LAST SEVEN MONTHS?
My first priority has been to ensure that youth in our programmes are getting a quality work experience, so I have made it a point to gather the right data and also meet youth and host partners directly. We have massively increased our call centre capacity – in the past month or so we have called 70 000 youth, including many alumni from our programmes. I’ve also been focusing on closer collaboration with corporate and host partners to enable job creation in future-facing industries, such as drones, coding, precision farming, environmental management, app-based logistics, etc. Moreover, given the private sector exposure for most of the youth, we know that many of these young people will go on to do remarkable things in the future, both for themselves and the country’s economy.
THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE DROPPED IN Q1. WHAT MORE CAN BE DONE TO ENSURE ITS CONSTANT, STEADY DECLINE?
The country’s official unemployment rate improved marginally to 34.5%, but two in three young people aged between 15-34 are unemployed. To shift the longer-term jobs trajectory, the government has to radically improve the quality of education in public schools (particularly the worst 50% of schools) and also undertake structural reforms in the economy to boost economic growth. Without meaningful progress on that score, it will continue to be an uphill battle for the country. At a macro level, the government has announced a critical package of reforms to unlock economic growth. These include restructuring Eskom and the country’s electricity system, auctioning spectrum to provide cheaper and more accessible data, restructuring our ports and rail network, and various red tape cutting to enable investment and job creation. These are necessary actions to take in the short term, but from which we will only reap benefits in the long term.
These reforms, much debated in recent years, now need to be implemented in practice. In the immediate term, the focus needs to be on helping young people get into jobs today. This means making it easier for private companies to hire youth, while also offering incentives (such as the YES programme) to companies. We have found that private sector work experience makes a young person much more employable and better equips them to eventually start their own small business. In the final analysis, a combination of private sector and taxpayer-funded interventions will be needed to support youth jobs, while economic reforms and the poor quality of public schooling is fixed.
WHAT EXCITES YOU MOST ABOUT WHAT YOU DO?
My life’s purpose is to work with credible organisations and good people that want to have a positive and sustainable impact in the world. I prefer to adopt a more independent approach; hence it really doesn’t matter to me where the best ideas come from. If an idea looks like it can work in practice and have a substantial impact, I will be happy to support it. I like what I do, and I like how I do it. I am always aware of how lucky I am to be doing what I do, and hence the obligation I achieve something meaningful for the country. YES has a fantastic Board and many of the leading corporations, so I intend to put them to good use!
HOW HAS COVID IMPACTED YES?
Although YES began operations in 2019, it really ramped up in the beginning of 2020. Despite the country shedding over two million jobs from March 2020 to the end of 2021, YES has been bucking this trend and has created over 82 000 work opportunities for youth. Over 2 200 private companies believe in this mission have signed on to co-create a future that works. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic cemented YES’s message in the hearts and minds of our corporate partners and has become a catalyst for action.
More than this, globally and locally, the pandemic has encouraged investors and consumers to choose what they buy and who they buy from based on a company’s sustainability plans. Companies that are participating in YES can be seen as good corporate citizens who are investing in the country’s future, which has also pushed us beyond B-BBEE solutions.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?
I like to have a clear vision and ensure there are competent staff and credible partners in place. My leadership style is meritocratic and collaborative, building an organisation based on meritocracy and letting senior staff have the space to make decisions and then also be held accountable for the results.
IN YOUR OPINION, WHAT ARE THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS WE SHOULD START AND STOP DOING IN SOUTH AFRICA TO TACKLE THE YOUTH UNEMPLOYMENT CRISIS?
Make radical changes to improve the quality of education in the worst 50% of schools, so that young people have the educational assets to truly change their futures is important.
Interventions that offer bang for buck and are explicitly designed for the execution capacity we have now (rather than for the capacity we wish we had) are crucial. This includes the fact that some stakeholders (even within the same constituency) are guaranteed not to cooperate with each other, and the country cannot wait for complete consensus. Lessons must be learned from disastrous experiments of the past, such as Outcomes-Based Education in the 1990s, which collapsed the public schooling system when it was realised too late that the global theory did not have the prerequisite actual teacher capacity in our government schools.
Also learn from programmes that have worked. From my own experience, I have seen enough stakeholders work well together to agree and implement a Health Roadmap to virtually solve the HIV/Aids crisis in 2008 (remember what a mess that was?).
Similarly, South Africa has emerged as a world leader on the renewables/global climate change agenda, as witnessed at the recent COP26 in Glasgow.
WHAT EXCITING PLANS DO YOU HAVE FOR THE FUTURE – BOTH PERSONALLY AND FOR THE ORGANISATION?
I have recently been appointed to the National Planning Commission (NPC; where commissioners are part-time) and chair the Economy and Employment working group of commissioners. I am hoping to support the important work the NPC is doing and forge partnerships between the state and the private sector (including the 2 200 corporate partners of YES) that can position South Africa well for the future. As a “greenie”, I am a big supporter of ESG and SDGs. As YES also works with many measurable ESG outcomes, YES can offer much more than just a B-BBEE benefit to corporations. This is an exciting journey for YES.
DO YOU HAVE A MESSAGE FOR OUR READERSHIP?
As a country, we must be optimistic to see the opportunities and pragmatic to take advantage of them. In the end, the world does not owe South Africa anything. South Africans – regardless of their background or politics – will have to work together to ensure we have a growing economy that can create jobs and generate taxes to pay for what we need. If we can do that, we may just stave off the looming catastrophe that youth unemployment represents to our young democracy.