We need to be more honest about how to solve youth unemployment in South Africa

By Bongani Frank Masilela, Candidate Manager at CapaCiTi.


Here’s the thing, “Qualification Required” is not going away any time soon – this despite all of the headlines about this and this Fortune 500 company “Scrapping degree requirements” making the rounds. Companies still need reassurance that they are hiring competent people who can add value through their productivity and knowledge. A qualification from a reputable institution communicates  that companies can rest assured in knowing that a minimum level of knowledge and competency have been acquired, and this age-old system is still the most efficient way of weeding through applications for jobs that could potentially number in the thousands, thus creating a nightmare for the talent and recruitment team, versus them numbering in the hundreds and filtering out people who may be taking chances.


What I have learnt about qualifications:


Qualifications, however, do not have to necessarily take the form of a bulk 3-4 years of straight schooling and/or knowledge acquisition. A staggered approach where Work Integrated Learning is applied could allow students to split their university years between 6 months of work/orientation, to get a feel for work, 6 months of theory and then repeat the process the following year over a 3-4-year period. This is essentially reinventing the wheel because many professions in South Africa apply this model, such as artisans, however, what is required, is to expand this model to many other professions.


I work with ICT graduates at the Cape Innovation & Technology Initiative, under the CapaCiTi unit, and our approach resembles this model, albeit in a microcosmic fashion. Our programmes consist of 3-4 months of IT training, from vendor-diverse cloud training from Salesforce, AWS Microsoft, to software development in languages like Python, JavaScript, Java as well as ‘low-code’ app development tools. What these certificates and qualifications communicate, is a minimum level of competency that can be trusted and that candidates can be expected to deliver.


This is why qualifications will always matter – because they communicate what intangible skills cannot communicate at first glance. Qualifications, however, only communicate competency to a certain extent. The ability to get work done is down to another intangible skill that often times is unfairly required from young graduates.


Experience matters!


Working in a space where unemployed graduates and youth come to transform their careers through the acquisition of both technical and soft skills, I have seen firsthand why experience matters. On the one hand, I decry the burdensome requirement that is placed on young people, but then when I see a candidate submit a risk report or a business report and they neither know how to write one nor present its findings, I start to realise why school alone is not enough and why, heartbreaking as it is, companies refuse to hire anyone without experience.


The reason why experience matters is because it comes with wisdom. Knowledge is the stored information that has been acquired, however, wisdom is the ability to apply and solve problems using that information. What to do under pressure, how to work with others and how to communicate ideas – these cannot be acquired through theory-based learning, but instead practical work, guidance and getting projects done. So, “Experience Required” is not going anywhere either. The question then is, how do we create a durable model to prepare young people for work in the 21st century, whilst moving away from the unwieldy and often expensive university model that is difficult to scale in Africa?


What this new model would look like:


As stated, what we do at CapaCiTi, is that through a rigorous application process, we select a cohort of candidates and place them in a training programme where they pick up several ICT skills. What this programme does is that it does not focus on theory alone, but real-world business cases that get candidates to apply their knowledge in a way that will equip them to get their work done. We work with companies, sponsors and grants to get this done. Our project with Accenture and Salesforce, for example, saw us taking in 50 candidates, training them in Salesforce technology, particularly preparing them for the Platform App Builder certificate exam. At the end of this programme in December 2021, they will be hired by Accenture to work on their Salesforce team, integrating technology solutions in some of the largest companies, not only in Africa but around the world! An overwhelming number of these candidates were unemployed just in July of this year, and in January they will be working for the largest consulting firm in the world.


This model works, not only because large companies like Accenture, Salesforce, Liquid Telecoms, Cell C and Naspers believe it works, but because they have invested capital into repeating the process and thus changing the lives of young people. If this is what companies at the forefront of innovation are picking up on, then perhaps it is time that we get into the conversation as NGOs with the private sector and with the government to figure out how this model of learn-work-learn-work-learn-work, that requires a basic campus with PCs and other amenities, could be scaled. It could certainly scale better than the university model because, from a real estate and infrastructure perspective, it does not require too much investment. From an effectiveness point of view, it is also superior because you achieve learning, experience and an intimate feedback loop where candidates engage with instructors, mentors and industry professionals, in a pipeline that directly leads to a good job.


To illustrate this model, Bongani would leave the 12th grade in high school, go for 6 months of training in cloud/software development, sponsored by a company. After 6 months of learning, he would be brought in for 6 months of work, not just ‘work exposure’, but actual work – crunching spreadsheets, drafting and proof-reading reports, coding, testing and implementation. Bongani could then go back to 6 months of further learning and upskilling before going back to work and applying those skills even more. This loop can go on for as long as specific companies desire – whether a 1-year loop as with CapaCiTi’s current model, a 2-year or even 4-year loop. This model also ensures that vendor-diverse certificates are attained, which are the ones that companies actually care about because those are the services and software products that they use. It’ is no use teaching cloud technology as an abstract concept that is to be applied in 3 years, after graduation, but rather focus on the vendors that the sponsor company uses – whether that be Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, Salesforce or Oracle. Focusing on vendor-diverse certificates will ensure industry standards are met and that candidates are employable.


There is a lot of work that lies ahead of us in terms of transforming the higher education model in Africa, however, bunched qualifications are not doing us any favours. A staggered approach will be required in order to secure jobs for young people and to meet companies’ insatiable need for fresh talent.


The programmes at CapaCiTi are focused on the “whole” person and not just imparting new technical learnings, but helping candidates gain confidence in themselves, providing an opportunity to apply their learning and focusing on job readiness, communication skills, self-awareness, and goal setting. Our objective is to reduce unemployment, grow skills, capacity and provide opportunities to young South Africans.


If you would to join our CapaCiTi family and improve your digital skills, apply to be included in our database and we will contact you when you qualify for any of our future programmes. CapaCiTi has a dedicated team that supports you throughout the process and cares about its candidates.


If you want to partner with CapaCiTi to secure or build your talent pipeline or get involved, click here.


More about the author


Bongani Masilela is a graduate of Wits University’s competitive “Development Studies” programme, his ability to analyse, research and contribute to the management of projects, particularly in the Education Management, Instructional and Learning Design spaces are some of his most outstanding qualities. Having worked in the CSI Project Delivery, Education Management, Monitoring & Evaluation, as well Curriculum Development domains, Bongani is fully convicted in his ability to not only contribute but to also continuously learn about the development agenda of Africa across various sectors and policy initiatives.


Bongani enjoys backpack travelling around the world during the holidays, podcasting on social issues facing South African society, as well as reading and volunteering. His guiding philosophy in life is “We each have a star, all we have to do is find it. Once you do, everyone who sees it will be blinded.”

We need to be more honest about how to solve youth unemployment in South Africa 1

Fiona Tabraham

Fiona Tabraham is a strategic workforce development expert with a career founded on a resolute commitment to inclusivity, talent nurturing, and societal impact. Chief Executive of CAPACITI Digital Career Accelerator, Fiona’s passion for equity has charted pathways across numerous organisations, guiding bespoke Talent Initiatives, Future Leadership Development Programs, and transformative Career Pathway Development. Her tenure at Network Rail bore inclusive talent strategies, STEM advocacy, and innovative Graduate, Apprentice, and Internship initiatives. A trusted partner to a number of governmental, corporate and impact driven entities, Fiona empowers individuals and organisations, fostering diverse recruitment practices and innovative talent strategies. Fiona’s impact transcends the tech sector, positioning her as a leading voice for inclusive digital career initiatives.