Tackling youth unemployment: What works, what doesn't

15 April 2021 | Story Lauren Graham, Ariane De Lannoy and Leila Patel. Photo Joonas Lyytinen, Wikimedia. Read time 10 min.

Youth unemployment is one of South Africa’s most intractable challenges, made worse by COVID-19. Prior to the pandemic the unemployment rate (including people who had given up looking for work) was just under 70% for people aged 15 to 24.

A year later the rate had increased to 74% – despite government investments. So it is crucial to understand what interventions are working. But how do we evaluate whether youth employment programmes are successful, particularly when unemployment is caused by the structure of the economy?

The obvious answer, of course, is whether a programme results in a young person getting employed.

This is logical and easy to measure. It can easily be linked to the release of funding to programmes. And it allows for programmes to be compared. This was done in a systematic review of 113 programmes internationally.

However, as we have explored in several recent studies, there are a number of drawbacks to relying solely on job placement as an indicator of successful intervention. Doing so misses out on outcomes that are equally important, or more so, amid high structural unemployment.


Together, these studies show that job placement alone is an insufficient goal and measure of the success of youth employability programmes.

These lessons are particularly important in economies that have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, where youth employment recovery will take time.

Inadequate measure of success

We make this argument based on several studies. The first looked at long-term employment outcomes of 1,892 youth between 18 and 25 who participated in youth employability programmes over the period 2017-2018. These are programmes run by NGOs, business and the state. They typically include technical and soft skills training.

The proportion of participants who found jobs and stayed in them over time was just 28% – somewhat better than a matched sample from the quarterly labour force survey data, but still low. But we also found evidence that programmes had other important outcomes. These included a continued positive orientation to the labour market, and improved self-esteem and self-efficacy – important attributes for managing the protracted transition to work in a low growth economy.

The second involved analysis of the quarterly labour force survey and general household survey data to understand the nature of young people not in employment or in education and training. It found that while many such youth have never worked, a significant portion find themselves in and out of work without making much longer-term progress.

The third study draws together several qualitative studies conducted in the past 10 years. It shows that young people are frustrated by the constant cycle of finding and taking up training and employment opportunities, without making progress towards a longer-term career.

Together, these studies show that job placement alone is an insufficient goal and measure of the success of youth employability programmes. Four reasons for this argument emerge from these studies.

First, job placement says more about demand than supply. A young person’s ability to find a job doesn’t depend only on their skills but also on whether the labour market is creating sufficient demand for employees. No matter how well a programme trains and supports a young person, if there are limited jobs, young people are unlikely to be employed.

Second, if a programme is getting young people into jobs even though job numbers are not growing – as in South Africa – these placements may be at the expense of other work seekers.

Individual programmes can get people into jobs while the overall youth unemployment rate stays stagnant or rises. In the context of a rapidly contracting economy in the COVID-19 era, this is a particularly important argument against job placement as the only measure of a programme’s success.

Third, using this single indicator takes attention away from longer-term pathways towards sustainable livelihoods. Many jobs in South Africa, especially at entry level, are insecure, part time or casual. There’s a risk of disregarding whether a job is decent and has prospects for learning and career development.

Young people typically do not stay in jobs. This is either because the job is not a good fit or is for a short term only. Other barriers, such as transport costs, also account for why they are unable to stay in jobs.

Qualitative and quantitative evidence shows that young people find jobs that are typically short lived, before having to look again for their next placement. Policymakers should consider whether these short term experiences add up to something longer term – or there’s a risk of perpetuating the cycle of underemployment.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, evaluating programmes on the basis of job placement alone underestimates the multidimensionality of poverty. Evidence repeatedly shows how many barriers and challenges young people face as they leave the education system and begin to find their way towards a job, and perhaps even a career.


Evidence repeatedly shows how many barriers and challenges young people face as they leave the education system and begin to find their way towards a job, and perhaps even a career.

These barriers are not only related to the labour market or education system. They also include issues such as food insecurity, income poverty, and care responsibilities, among others. Each of these limit the ability of young people to look for work.

These interrelated challenges influence young people’s ability to take up training or job opportunities.

Taken together, these challenges require far more intensive support than simply training and placing a young person in a job.

Alternative approaches

It is crucial that funders, policy makers, and programme developers invest in more intensive support that can help young people meet the challenges they face in seeking work. They must also insist on measures beyond job placement as indicators of success. International evidence bears this out. It shows that across 113 programmes reviewed, multidimensional programmes that seek to provide more comprehensive support to youth are more effective than those that offer training only. They are particularly successful when they target the most vulnerable youth.

Further, our research recognises the crucial contribution such programmes play in keeping young people connected to opportunities, and reducing social exclusion and social drift. This is when young people become increasingly disconnected from the labour market, training opportunities and positive social inclusion, which in turn can have negative consequences on mental health.

Given this evidence and the fact that South Africa is facing a stagnant economy for some time, it is crucial that funders, policy makers and those working on youth employment interventions evaluate and invest in programmes on the basis of their ability to keep young people positively oriented towards the labour market. The programmes should help improve their employability, even if the young participant is not yet able to find an actual job.

Outcome indicators that can more adequately measure these factors include enhancing job search resilience, promoting self-esteem and self-efficacy, and reducing discouragement.

There are ample reasons to move away from evaluating employability programmes on the basis of employment outcomes alone. Rather, a range of indicators should be used to track whether young people remain engaged, believe in themselves and keep trying to find a job. This, while developing the personal attributes that will make them attractive to future employers.

Each of these outcomes is more difficult to measure than a simple count of job placements. But it’s not impossible.

Lauren Graham, Associate professor at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg, University of Johannesburg; Ariane De Lannoy, Senior Researcher: Poverty and Inequality Initiative, Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit, University of Cape Town, and Leila Patel, Professor of Social Development Studies, University of Johannesburg.

This article was published in The Conversation, a collaboration between editors and academics to provide informed news analysis and commentary. Its content is free to read and republish under Creative Commons; media who would like to republish this article should do so directly from its appearance on The Conversation, using the button in the right-hand column of the webpage. UCT academics who would like to write for The Conversation should register with them; you are also welcome to find out more from lisa.boonzaier@uct.ac.za.

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