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Skilling our youth for a transformative future

In the month where we mark World Youth Skills Day, it is necessary to reflect on what we can do to reverse the unemployment trends across a continent that not only has the youngest population in the world, but also a wellspring of exciting untapped talent.

As of 2022, around 40 percent of the African population was aged 15 years and younger, compared to a global average of 25 percent. Africa could supply the next generation of the workforce. But the widening skills gap must be addressed to take advantage of this opportunity.

There are many barriers to employment in a continent that struggles to provide meaningful routes into employment. The lack of opportunity, combined with a lack of resources to either study further or find an entry-level job, impede our youth from employment that offers genuine opportunities for advancement. However, we serve our youth very poorly if we behave dismissively towards those who show a genuine drive to find employment simply because they lack experience or digital skills.

New models are required

The UNESCO International Centre for Technical and Vocational Training (UNEVOC) notes that technological advancements and shifting labour market dynamics increasingly call for agile and adaptable skill sets. Technical and vocational education and training is well placed to meet these demands by reducing access barriers to the world of work, ensuring that skills gained are relevant, recognised and certified, and offering skills development opportunities for youth who are not in education, employment and training.

The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry is a beacon of hope for young people who have the enthusiasm, talent and tenacity to thrive when presented with an opportunity. This is because most contact centre positions are entry-level positions. A willingness to learn, a positive outlook and strong communication skills are all more important than any tertiary training or previous experience for gaining access to the industry. Young people can enter the job market, gain valuable on-the-job knowledge and receive training while earning a full-time income.

This is a growth industry with ample opportunities for young people. The 2021 Annual Front Office Business Process Outsourcing Omnibus Survey ranked South Africa as the top destination for BPO worldwide. Recognising the job opportunities and investment potential it presents, the Department of Trade and Industry has identified the BPO sector as a priority sector, particularly for addressing youth unemployment. There is reason for this optimism: the South African business process outsourcing market size is projected to reach USD 3.6 billion by 2027.

Providing skills that translate into employability

The theme for this year’s World Youth Skills Day is one that carries the weight of importance: Skilling teachers, trainers and youth for a transformative future. This theme highlights the essential role that teachers, trainers and other educators play in providing skills for youth to transition to the labour market and to actively engage in their communities and societies. This encapsulates what CareerBox is trying to achieve with our work readiness training programmes, which offer unemployed people from historically disadvantaged communities a foot in the door.

The BPO industry is challenging and is well-known for having a high turnover of staff. It’s not the right industry for everyone, as presenting a warm, helpful customer-facing presence all day requires a particular aptitude. However, those with tenacity can thrive and do well in this fast-paced environment, as contact centres offer many opportunities for employees to gain valuable experience and get training while earning an income, opening chances for advancement into supervisory and management positions.

What we’ve learned

CareerBox has been running for 10 years, and we have made several meaningful discoveries in that time which continue to shape how we structure our business. The first is that Africa offers incredible talent that is comparable to any of the international markets we deal with. Our people are our greatest asset, with deep capabilities.

The second is that accessibility is key. You can offer the best training programme in the world, but if the people you are serving can’t access the opportunity, it will come to nought. This is why we have carefully chosen our training facilities in close proximity to public transport options, and to the communities we serve. In Umlazi, KwaZulu Natal, we have chosen a facility that community members can directly access the resources they need to change their lives without having to pay for transport to another area.

The third learning is directly connected to the second – we must follow the jobs. We don’t consider training for the sake of training to be a successful strategy – our metric for success is the successful placement of someone from our workplace readiness programme into permanent employment. We carefully consider where we develop our learning centres to ensure that work opportunities are nearby. So far, our strategy has paid dividends – about 90% of the people who complete our programme are successfully placed into employment. Some of our earlier placements have progressed in their careers and now hold management positions in contact centres.

If we are to enable our youth and provide them with the skills to breach the barriers to entry into ongoing employment, we need private-public partnerships that support training and empowerment initiatives. Passion and interest exist – now, we must support our youth to develop the competencies needed to thrive in the modern marketplace.