Can we grasp South Africa’s ‘youth dividend’?

This Youth Month, we are reminded not only of the powerful role young people have played in shaping South Africa’s past, but also of the role they must play in our country’s future development and economic growth.

Unemployment is one of major challenges affecting the youth, who make up 35.7% of the total population. Image credit: Brand SA

According to UN population projections, South Africa has only limited time left to take advantage of a key period of demographic transition, the so-called “demographic dividend” – an opportunity for increased economic growth that presents itself when a population is composed of large numbers of people at, or close to, working age, who are then able to generate economic activity and build up capital.

Africa is the world’s “youngest” continent, and South Africa certainly reflects this youthful character: those aged 15 to 34 make up 35.7% of the total population. But unless these young people are equipped with the right skills and knowledge to be employable – and unless we collectively do more to provide opportunities for them – we stand to squander our demographic dividend.

Worse, if young people’s economic exclusion is allowed to persist or deepen, our demographic dividend will turn into disaster.

Breaking down barriers

The above risks are certainly top of mind for President Cyril Ramaphosa, who has made it clear that developing the skills and knowledge of the youth, and removing obstacles to gainful employment, is high on his agenda.

As he noted in his State of the Nation Address, “The fact that the unemployment rate among young South Africans is more than 50% is a national crisis that demands urgent, innovative and coordinated solutions.”

Beier shares these concerns, which is why our Corporate Social Investment (CSI) initiatives align with government’s imperatives in the areas of skills development and job creation. The four Beier Group companies have collectively invested almost R10 million since 2017 in various PIVOTAL (professional, vocational, technical and academic learning) programmes to develop much-needed skills, and ensure South Africa’s vast pool of talent is not wasted. In this same period, more than 180 young people have benefited from our initiatives, often over a number of years. It’s how we’re working to unlock the productivity and potential of South Africa’s youth dividend.

Investing in education

Education is the most powerful tool we have to empower young people. To help students overcome the barriers posed by restrictive study costs, Beier offers both bursary and learnership programmes.

Our initiatives in this area are strategic: the investment we make is about developing the kinds of skills and knowledge that can ultimately be absorbed into the workforce – a talent pipeline first and foremost into our Beier Group companies, but also elsewhere in the South African economy.

The absorption rate from these PIVOT programmes into our companies is close to 100%.

Our learnership programmes, which align practical on-the-job experience with theoretical learning, currently benefit many previously unemployed learners, who are now working towards NQF qualifications in production technology and manufacturing. The outcome for them will be not just a technical qualification, but also a full year’s work experience. In addition, Beier currently employs six apprentices in various areas of expertise, who are studying while they work.

Because we understand the great value of education underpinned by real-world experience, our bursary recipients also have the opportunity to take up holiday work placements at Beier.

Mentoring for impact

While the importance of a good education cannot be overstated, it’s often not enough to guarantee employment. Too many graduates emerge unprepared for entry-level work – it’s clear they need help to develop experience and more holistic skills that unlock the door to jobs.

To overcome this inexperience barrier, our internship programmes are designed not just to transfer industry-related expertise, but also to impart crucial skills needed for the workplace, whether it’s communication and problem-solving, business acumen or technological knowhow.

Our interns are mentored by highly experienced employees who are specialists in their field to ensure they have the right guidance and gain confidence in their skills area. We also take care to develop a bespoke leadership and development plan for each intern according to the specific training needs required.

It is only when companies carefully structure their programmes in this way, to enhance critical workplace skills and to maximise the eventual employability of emerging graduates, that we can overcome the currently poor absorption rate of these young people into the labour market – a shortcoming that President Ramaphosa has repeatedly highlighted. The effectiveness of our own approach is reflected in the absorption rate of learners and trainees into our businesses – we currently employ 98,5% of the youth who complete the various PIVOT programmes we support.

Ultimately, we realise that mentorship is not just a one-way street. The energy, fresh ideas and innovation that young people inject into our business, and the diversity they bring to our workforce, make Beier more successful.

Transferring knowledge

Knowledge-sharing, whether it’s through staff training, internships or other programmes, is critical to skills development in South Africa.

Zama Khanyile has become a vital member of the Beier team.

With a history stretching back nine decades, the Beier Group has accumulated a vast amount of operational and technical expertise. Our motive for transferring this to a new generation of workers is not just altruistic, however. There is also a strong business case to be made for leveraging our internal expertise to shape Beier’s future leaders. In fact, it’s critical to our sustainability and performance, not least when it comes to succession planning.

When long-standing employees with extensive expertise near retirement, effective knowledge transfer becomes essential to ensure we can fill the void and retain highly specialised skills. This was the case with Zama Khanyile, a Research and Development Manager at one of our Beier Group companies. After awarding Zama a full bursary to study a BSc in Chemical Engineering, we carefully aligned her studies with our succession planning. In assuming her role, following four years of job shadowing, Zama replaced more than 40 years of product design experience when her predecessor retired, instantly making her a vital member of our team.

Investing in individuals like Zama is investing in us, so that together we can empower more of our country’s youth.