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WORLD OF WORK OP-ED

Learnerships may be part of the answer to youth unemployment, but they must be meaningful

Learnerships may be part of the answer to youth unemployment, but they must be meaningful
Students at the Mandela School of Science & Technology in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape on 17 January 2014. The societal tendency to push the school-university-work journey, without considering alternative modes of education and professional growth, is limiting, says the writer. (Photo: Dean Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

There’s an element of corporate fatigue about learnerships. They’ve become another requirement businesses are expected to fulfil, a B-BBEE scorecard item to check. Understanding the very real benefits has largely been replaced by bored and even malicious compliance.

We’re all familiar with the statistics. A national unemployment rate of 33%. A youth unemployment rate of 64% for job seekers between 15 and 24, and 41% for those between 24 and 35. About 9% of 17-year-olds drop out of school and the majority of 20-year-olds aren’t receiving any form of education at all.

The reasons behind these figures are well documented. There’s a misalignment between the qualifications offered and the skills required in the market. Schools, colleges and universities are oversubscribed and underresourced, and the societal tendency to push the school-university-work journey, without considering alternative modes of education and professional growth, is limiting.

But there’s another issue at play, too.

Our education system simply isn’t robust enough to prepare young matriculants and graduates for the world of work. They may have a theoretical foundation, but their practical skills are often lacking. These range from the technical skills required to perform a particular job, to softer skills such as managing interpersonal relationships and demonstrating good workplace etiquette.

Shaun Zedi drives the Wits Solar Car v2.0 in Johannesburg on 23 September 2014. Schools, colleges and universities are oversubscribed and underresourced, and the societal tendency to push the school-university-work journey, without considering alternative modes of education and professional growth, is limiting. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sunday Times / James Oatway)

This lack of practical training can even affect young adults’ interviewing techniques, preventing them from getting out of the starting gates in the first place. And those who do pass their interviews may not have their contracts renewed after their probation period if they can’t demonstrate the on-the-job skills their managers and employers expect of them.

What, we have to ask, can best bridge this gap?

A supportive and sustainable scaffolding

Time and time again, learnerships emerge as one of the most important and effective solutions.

Learnerships provide a scaffolding. They help to support the transition between secondary or tertiary education and the working world they are about to enter or have already entered. They help learners to gain a professional foothold and to secure it, giving them the knowledge, skills and expertise they need to thrive in their careers.

It’s not a reinvention of the learnership wheel. It’s about making small and deliberate adjustments that give matriculants and graduates the best possible chance of success.

These careers may not necessarily involve working at large companies. A strong base of entrepreneurs is critical to an economically secure future in South Africa. And people who not only have the theoretical training to run their own companies, but useful in-person experiences from which to draw, are likely to become successful business owners who provide critical services and alleviate unemployment down the line.

There needs to be a clarification, however. These learnerships cannot be of the stock-standard, box-ticking variety. Instead, we need a concerted commitment to implementing meaningful, high-impact learnerships.

Making learnerships matter

There’s an element of corporate fatigue about learnerships. They’ve become another requirement businesses are expected to fulfil, a B-BBEE scorecard item to check. Understanding the very real benefits of this type of education has largely been replaced by bored and even malicious compliance.

Students perform scientific experiments at the Mandela School of Science & Technology in Mvezo in the Eastern Cape on 17 January 2014. Learnerships help to support the transition between secondary or tertiary education and the working world. (Photo: Dean Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Learners, too, have become prone to abusing the system. Embarking on serial learnerships – where they take advantage of the (often poorly managed) learnerships available, and simply move from one to another – has become common. With a stipend usually offered, learners tend to view endless learnerships as better than being unemployed. But this means that they’re occupying places others could take, and that they’re delaying entering the workforce full time.

This emphasises the difference between ordinary learnerships that serve neither learners nor employers to their full potential, and meaningful learnerships that are capable of creating positive individual, corporate and societal change.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Small businesses a viable path to youth employment but equity obstacles need to be addressed

Meaningful learnerships demand clear intent from corporates to impart lasting skills, a commitment from learners to bring the best that they can offer, and an understanding from service providers that this nurturing environment needs to be consistently supported. They demand that all parties know what’s expected of them, and that together they show a concerted effort to seeing learners survive and excel in the world of work – whatever that world may look like to them, now or in the future.

It’s not a reinvention of the learnership wheel. It’s about making small and deliberate adjustments that give matriculants and graduates the best possible chance of success.

Alleviating South Africa’s unemployment crisis depends on a workforce that is educated, capable and entrepreneurial. Not all of these skills are provided in the classroom. Many are only possible in the workplace. And the rest, learnerships may be able to bridge – if we implement them well. DM

Aunyana Moloisane is the Managing Director of Optimi Workplace, a division of the Optimi Group.

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