Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 20 January 2014

Is there a military option for school leaver unemployment?

More than 50% of the country’s youth is unemployed. Every year another wave of school leavers adds to this number. Many are unemployable because they lack basic skills. To avert the coming national disaster and to address the country’s most critical problem a radical solution is needed.

In Merrill Lynch’s recent forecast for the South African economy it is noted that we are heading to an average growth rate of less than 3% in the next few years and that that level of growth only adds about 275,000 jobs to the economy per year. Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education and training, says 496,090 learners wrote the final matriculation exam last year, with 348,117 passing. A total in excess of 700,000 dropped out before writing matric. There are now 171,755 matriculants with university passes, and 127,827 places at 22 universities.

Lindiwe Mazibuko,commenting on the youth subsidy in Parliament last year put it at an even higher figure. “About 72% of South Africans under 34 are unemployed,” she said.

The South African Institute of Race Relations says, “51% of 15-24 year olds are unemployed.”

At the same time, Loane Sharp, Adcorp’s specialist on employment issues, says that there are 829,000 vacancies in corporate South Africa, and, let alone school leavers, “a total of more than 600,000 graduates that are unemployed.” Experts talk about ‘structural reforms’ needed to address the unemployment issue and a new compact amongst government, labour and business needed to fix it. We also learn that “government -created jobs only last an average of 46 days.”

What do all these numbers say? They say that there are millions of young people who lack the skills to be offered formal employment and who will not have any means of consistent income in the future. The country needs skills and the institutions to educate people and develop those skills are failing.

The president is clearly aware of this and in the ANC’s recently stated election manifesto he again promised six million new jobs in the next ten years. That is more than 500,000 new jobs per year. So far, despite their best efforts only half the number predicted has been created each year. Even if there are more jobs, how many school leavers will qualify for the opportunities that may become available? Employers regularly comment on the poor standards of literacy and numerical ability of those coming out of our debilitated schooling system.

There must be another way out of this intractable problem. Young people need a bridging facility that will teach them some of the basic skills needed to function in the adult world. They need instruction in personal discipline and the responsibilities of employment. They need to learn and gain an understanding of how organisations work and what people do in the working world. Many will have grown up in single-parent households and have not had the benefit of proper parenting.

There is little career guidance of any kind at most schools. Many are hard put even to manage the rudimentary requirements of getting through the full academic curriculum. There is little knowledge of what is out there in commerce and industry and there seems to be no more than a haphazard understanding of how to access the working world or its employment opportunities.

In many societies the army has provided some of the training and development that has developed a degree of maturity and responsibility in young, inexperienced people. The British Army and famous defence forces from ancient China to modern-day America have assisted young men and women to develop confidence, become responsible and often acquire the occupational skills that can sustain them for the rest of their lives.

By all accounts, our present defence for is a somewhat wobbly institution. Apart from its sometime misguided adventures into various African trouble spots it does not seem to be a well-integrated institution with a clear sense of purpose. It has spawned all kinds of dodgy arms deals and has failed in its task of training people sufficiently to the extent that expensive technical equipment is lying idle for want of proper operational or maintenance capability. It has an extravagant budget but doubtful overall effectiveness. In its present state it is an unlikely vehicle for meaningful youth development.

But is it possible to redirect its generous funding and that a new military initiative can be established? Could the government be persuaded to take its defence force into a new revitalised and dynamic future with strong and energetic leadership? Could its army be one that would provide excellent life skills training in addition to military competence? And then is it possible that all unemployed school leavers will have the option to be taken up in a two-year contract, on a very basic salary?

Imagine the benefit of, say, one million school leavers per year being engaged into such a military ‘apprenticeship’, earning a salary, learning the benefits of personal discipline and proper communication, in addition to participating proudly in a meaningful national cause. Imagine also the job creation for hundreds of instructors and officers who would manage such an ambitious national enterprise.

At a time when the country has been losing faith in its flawed police force, would a substantially expanded and much more effective defence force not be a very useful resource to help in a time of regional or national emergency? In many countries the army is commandeered into rescue efforts when there are floods or fires or earthquakes or major mining disasters. Can a well-trained army be called on to contain matters and keep the peace in times of labour unrest or where people are being killed in hot-headed protest actions?

Is it not possible that a military option for school-leaver unemployment could have benefits not only for school-leavers, but also for the country at large? DM

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