Every January the whole country focusses in on a single number: the matric pass rate. For many this number comes to define the state of young people, and we tend to leave the conversation there. But for school-leavers, the matric results are not just the end of one journey, they are the start of a difficult quest to secure access to higher education or work. If we really want to support the matrics of 2015, and all other young people on this journey, there are a range of critical conversations we need to have, and opportunities we need to seize:
- Support young people to signal their competence to potential employers.
Although there is good evidence that getting a matric and TVET or university qualifications do make you more employable, many employers don’t trust young people’s formal qualifications to signal competence. We need to start getting creative in how we support young people to illustrate their competence, talents, attitudes, and abilities to potential employers; and how we get employers to notice talent and competence outside of formal qualifications. Many young people that volunteer or seek work experience through internships and skills programmes also need support in identifying, and marketing, what they’ve learned and what their real skills are.
- Build social capital across divides, and shift the pathways to employment for young people.
Studies have shown that the majority of employed young people found their jobs through family members, friends, and word of mouth in their networks. One study showed only 12% of young people found their jobs through advertisements! The fact that people have to primarily rely on personal networks to access employment perpetuates and reinforces the divides within our society. Mechanisms to build social capital across the divides and to find new pathways to employment is crucial to increase the options of young people as they transition out of school.
- Find ways to overcome high job search costs
Evidence shows that young people who live in households where there is someone receiving an old age pension tend to increase their job search activities. Just that small amount of additional income in a household can open up new avenues for young people to search for work. This is starkly different to a common narrative that young people are just ‘sitting around’ for no reason – there are very real barriers, and clear opportunities to reduce those barriers which we must seriously consider.
High transport costs is one of these barriers. In one study, almost a quarter of young people said they could not afford the transport costs associated with looking for work. Of those who had given up looking, 47% said it was because they couldn’t find any opportunities in their immediate area and didn’t have the means to travel. If we expect young people to proactively seek work, we need to find mechanisms to reduce or remove this massive cost barrier.
Another obvious barrier is the high cost of mobile data in South Africa. Mobile phones could be – and have been elsewhere on the continent – one of the greatest positive disruptive innovations. Having a phone that can access the internet dramatically changes the information and opportunities young people can access. But high data costs make it almost impossible for young people to access useful information, even if they do have a phone! This is one area where good policy and industry willingness could easily unlock a huge opportunity.
- Support young people through the vulnerability of transitions
Almost 90% of the lifetime probability of HIV infection is crammed into the decade immediately after leaving school. Leaving school and then being in the wilderness of unemployment – the reality for the majority of young people who dropped out before matric and who wrote matric last year – may lead to increased risk behaviour and has a major effect on mental health. Leaving school means leaving a stable routine, with strong social bonds and (even if not ideal) support structures. We have to build particularly strong support networks, pathways, and opportunities for young people to step into straight out of school. This is true both for those young people looking for work, and those who access higher education. While #FeesMustFall has highlighted the significant financial constraints on students, the massive adjustment to university also requires a far better system of psycho-social support for new students if we are to mitigate the large number of students that drop-out, particularly in the first year of study.
- Supporting this cohort has major pay-offs for future generations.
Young people today are often referred to as a ‘ticking time bomb’ or even more depressingly as another lost generation. But as the 2015 SA Child Gauge noted, finding breakthrough interventions for this cohort of young people has the potential to interrupt the cycle of intergenerational transmission of poverty.
If we really want to radically change the trajectory of South Africa we have to connect the dots between high quality provision of Early Childhood Development (the core focus of our partners Ilifa Labantwana and SmartStart), and their parents. If we want an amazing new generation of children, we need to make sure this generation of young people – who are their parents – have access to a radically different set of trajectories and opportunities.
 Altman, M. & Marock, C. (2008) Identifying appropriate interventions to support the transition from schooling to the workplace. Human Sciences Research Council & Centre for Poverty Employment and Growth and Lam, D., Leibbrandt, M. and Mlatsheni, C. (2008) Education and Youth Unemployment in South Africa. A Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit Working Paper Number 22. Cape Town: SALDRU, University of Cape Town
 Shisana, O, Rehle, T, Simbayi LC, Zuma, K, Jooste, S, Zungu N, Labadarios, D, Onoya, D et al. (2014) South African National HIV Prevalence, Incidence and Behaviour Survey, 2012. Cape Town, HSRC Press.
 Graham, L. and Mlatsheni, C. “Youth unemployment in South Africa: Understanding the challenge and working on solutions”, in De Lannoy, A., Swartz, S., Lake, L. and Smith, C. (eds.), The South African Child Gauge 2015, p. 52-53