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How Youth Employment Service is using tech innovation to reduce South Africa’s youth unemployment crisis

We sat down with Youth Employment Service's CEO, Dr Tashmia Ismail-Saville, to discuss the importance of digitalisation, disrupting conventional training & using tech to reach youth during COVID-19.

Youth Employment Service (YES) is a pioneering, business-led NPO that seeks out ground-breaking ways, through innovation and technological best practice, to reignite the economy and give youth a dignified first chance. YES is an innovation - driven by policy amendments which incentivise the private sector to invest in youth jobs - and an example of how creative access to tech can be transformative. In roughly 106 weeks of operations, it has secured nearly 50,000 placements, the equivalent of R2.8 billion in salaries going into youth wallets.
We sat down with their CEO Dr. Tashmia Ismail-Saville to chat about digital classrooms & disrupting conventional learning.

It is exciting that YES started as a conversation between business, government and labour on how these sectors could work together, which eventually culminated in an operational, executed strategy, rather than a ‘more talk shop’. When the first sovereign ratings downgrades became a topic in South Africa, one of the focal points was addressing youth unemployment. YES was born out of these discussions as a private sector-led initiative to address the youth unemployment crisis.

Scaling from day one with a strategy for success

 YES was registered as a non-profit organisation in August 2018, the B-BBEE amendment to the legislation enabling YES, was Gazetted by the Department of Trade and Industry and Competition (dtic, formerly dti) in October 2018, and the organisation began operating with youth placements in January 2019. YES is a national programme and we were born with a large national mandate to scale. We didn't have the luxury of a start-up - we had to figure out how to scale from day one, making a digital strategy imperative for success.

 We're in a country that isn’t structurally configured to naturally create jobs. Getting companies to invest in youth employment needed an incentivisation angle. In South Africa, B-BBEE is an absolute competitive necessity and a great pathway to transforming the economy. It is especially needed in the current economic climate. Well spent B-BBEE funds can set a business apart, confer competitive advantage, build customer loyalty, and be a key factor that could win or lose major contracts for firms. The legislative amendment that we worked on with the dtic offers South African businesses a way to improve their B-BBEE levels, over and above the standard B-BBEE scorecard elements, while driving impactful transformation through employment creation. Companies that create a target number of work experiences through YES can benefit with a B-BBEE rating increase of one, or even two, full levels. We built this in an extremely simple way with a clear formula and calculator: This is how many jobs you have to offer based on your net profit after tax. 

 If you’re unemployed, there's often a marker on you that you're high risk and your productivity is in question. YES gives the young person the opportunity and confidence to show that they are capable and de-risks them as future employees. A previous work experience doubles the likelihood of a job for a woman, if she can show a reference letter from a previous employer - 60% of YES Youth are female and many are young mothers. 


Big data, design and innovation

 We're strong believers in using digital for behavioural change and consistently use behavioural insights in everything we do. From the outset, everything we designed was built to enable a seamless registration programme for companies to ensure scale. It doesn't matter where our 1,222 corporate partners are sitting, they can manage their YES programme online. Platform businesses like Uber and Airbnb influenced the design of YES.

The YES Youth programme is driven by technology and innovation, delivering a cross-country programme through smartphones and digitally delivered training and evaluation with big data dashboards for continuous monitoring and evaluation of youth. As part of this digital ecosystem, we created two apps for training and monitoring youth wherever they reside, rural or urban, township or suburb, the apps have a Vodacom zero-rating, meaning no matter where our youth are, the data is free.


Building a digital-savvy workforce

 We believe that if you want to get youth prepared to enter the world of work, you have to get them digitally savvy. It is important to create digital training spaces that aren't trying to mimic what happens in a classroom. Our app has modules showing youth how to adapt to the world of work, navigate challenges, build a growth mindset, transact on a digital platform, and access information online. They're learning how to skill themselves via online access to courses, and we are learning every day how to get better at teaching, guiding and mentoring youth through a digital platform. 

 Most people learn well through storytelling, this insight led us towards the creation of visually rich, mixed media content. Our curriculum is delivered through a few genres including soap opera style stories and animations with realistic plots of characters that look like our youth and sound like them too, aspirational but authentic, we also deliver learning in bite sizes for easy digestion and memorisation. Youth can engage, move out and come back into the app, allowing for flexibility. We want to impart an important self-empowerment message whilst youth are in our programme that where you start is not where you end. With commitment you can build skills and improve, youth are masters of their own destiny and they're captains of their own ship. They need to believe that.

 During COVID, we worked on a survey delivered digitally to youth trapped in lockdown circumstances. We received 4,500 responses and this digital access allowed us to understand how young people were navigating the pandemic. Our team developed new modules in response very quickly because that's the beauty of digital. A course can be curated and running in a day. We developed content teaching youth about social distancing and how to make a mask at home, removing some of the anxiety by explaining what the virus was about, offering the power of knowledge to dispel fear. They built a great understanding by watching the videos. To further alleviate anxiety and build coping techniques, we created a yoga and breathing module sensitive to the stress COVID was creating. This had the added benefit of building immune systems by encouraging exercise and meditation, giving youth constructive activities even if they were stuck at home.


Online vs physical classrooms

As a lecturer, I recall preferring the interaction of a classroom than an online space. But we need to get better at online, take advantage of the benefits of these digital learning spaces where you can get peer learning and have live feedback. A space that rewards you behaviourally for learning and understanding and that allows you, with AI elements, to increase the complexity of what you learn at your own pace and in tandem with your understanding. Physical classrooms can’t do that - there are many benefits of digital we should exploit more rigorously.

 Starting earlier is important. We are one intervention that targets youth post school and once they’re already unemployed, perhaps too late. If we could start through the school system using the same digital platforms, making vocational choices sexier, more aspirational than they currently are, showing young people that no matter your circumstance, there is a way of accessing this information and building skills. Showcasing career pathways for the many not destined for elite tertiary institutions.  

 There is also a long-term story for technology companies. By giving us the zero-rating, Vodacom creates the digital highways on which these ideas, thinking and accessibility can move through. If companies can create the virtual highways, they're building a future business space for themselves.

 My hopes are that we have learned profound lessons from COVID and those lucky enough to survive and still have a job, use that privilege and the learning very carefully. COVID’s teaching and impact is not over, but we are already pressing reset buttons, thinking about how we can be better, use less, build smarter. Perhaps we must suffer through these lessons to change. We talk about company, community, and country and if you do YES right, you have impacted across all those levels.

YES focusses on affordability, accessibility and entertaining learning through stories. It has innovated this pathway for young people, made it accessible by putting it onto a digital platform, affordable by putting it onto a zero-rated platform, and entertaining by making it content that is very digestible.

To learn more about their work go here.

Technology for the Future of Work

The YES Youth programme is driven by technology and innovation, delivering a cross-country programme through smartphones and digitally delivered training and evaluation with big data dashboards for continuous monitoring and evaluation of youth.

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