The decline in permanent jobs following the COVID-19 pandemic is likely here to stay. We must therefore find new ways for young people to reliably enter and stay within the labour market.
The impact of the global COVID-19 pandemic on employment in South Africa saw a five-percentage point fall in the proportion of employed youth, which comes on the back of already very high youth unemployment rates. We know that crises hit hardest those who have the most tenuous attachment to the labour market: young women, who saw double the rate of retrenchments compared to men. This can be attributed, in part, to the collapse of short-term and contract jobs during the pandemic. However, the recovery shows that these are now coming back more quickly than longer-term, more permanent jobs. In an environment of uncertainty, we can expect this imbalance to continue, exposing young people to a very different opportunity set of entry-level work.
Some of the most valuable skills for the future of work cannot be automated and need to be invested in now
Just like the Japanese hotel that fired half its robots in 2019, the global response to the pandemic has shown us the power of data, machine learning and automation, as well as their limits. Frontline responses in public health, social care and financial support have depended heavily on human-to-human interactions. Complex problems and broken structures have tested the limits of the technological solutions we do have. Technology may need humans more than the other way round, a view that’s borne out by evidence that the fastest-growing sectors of the economy place a premium on human skills deployed in tandem with technology.
There’s reason to believe South Africa is particularly well positioned to take advantage of this shift. In April, South Africa’s global business service industry edged out other countries like India and the Philippines to claim the top award of Most Favoured Offshore CX Delivery Location for 2021, despite (and perhaps even accelerated by) the pandemic. The research highlighted South Africa’s human advantage: a skilled and young English-speaking workforce with high empathy levels and cultural affinity to source markets − as one of the key factors driving the success of the sector.
Industry leaders project high growth in this sector as it rides the coattails of digital transformation across every industry, noting that ‘the abundance of empathetic, solutions-oriented skills allows for clients to offshore many aspects of their business from traditional voice-based customer service and sales through to more in-depth shared services and back-office, and increasingly their digital requirements’.
New kinds of networks are needed to create mobility between jobs
In a world of traditional, linear career progression, your job IS your network. Once ‘in’, employees slowly gain access to a vast and informal web of shared experiences, advice, and opportunity that performs a vital function of keeping people moving within and between roles. But in the new shape of the labour market, being between short-term roles is a much more prevalent reality. We need to ensure that this reality does not translate into lost access and momentum.
This means building another network alongside the ‘inside track’ − one that keeps people inside a network when they are in-between jobs and keeps them moving forward with nudges and visibility to new opportunities. Such a pathway management network can build on the extremely valuable skills gained during even a series of short-term contracts.
With SA Youth, a national platform for youth co-created by government and the private sector, work-seekers can access a network to find opportunities, earn an income and stay engaged and connected. SA Youth gathers opportunities for earning, learning, and volunteering from many partners and makes them visible in a single place to young people, accessible through a free mobi-site. The site allows them to select and apply for opportunities that are a good fit based on their profile and interest. And it costs the young person nothing − there are no fees, and the site is data-free. Businesses or others with available opportunities can use a partner portal to load their needs, reach matched applicants, and track their application status. This ‘network of networks’ brings partners together to provide ongoing recommendations to learning, content, and support so that young people know what they must do to grow their profile and to access more opportunities.
As this network grows, it can better reflect the landscape of work we have described here: escalators of mobility are identified, well-represented and spotlighted. High-value human skills are visible in young people’s profiles and in employers’ criteria. And the pathways into and between roles are clearly signposted.
The data is unambiguous: the future of work has arrived. The urgency of re-wiring our systems around it has increased, but we believe that there’s cause to do so with more optimism than fear: The future of work is a human-centred one, and humans are already rising to the challenge.
This article draws on research on youth employability from the Breaking Barriers reports by the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator supported by the National Youth Development Agency.
Waseem Carrim CA(SA) is CEO of the National Youth Development Agency