Encouraging companies to open their doors to young people through internships

As part of Youth Month we invited Theo Garrun, Editor of the Star Workplace and Project Manager for the Star newspaper’s WorkSA project to share his views on how we can create opportunities to assist young South Africans to become more employable.

There was a time – though it’s hard to believe it – when at the beginning of each year all the major corporations would take in a batch of newly qualified recruits and funnel them into employment opportunities within their ranks.

The big financial institutions all did it, and so did the local government departments. For a young person just out of university, or even with just a matric, it was just a matter of deciding where you wanted to go.

How the banks and insurance companies were able to absorb those numbers in unclear, but it certainly had to do with systems that were quite primitive and labour intensive, requiring many hands to write down numbers, fill out forms and stuff envelopes.

Office automation changed all of that in the wink of an eye and it’s not a cliché to say that one machine soon began to do the work of a hundred people. The computers brought in were costly at first, but they have become progressively cheaper over time, and it soon became far more profitable, as well as more efficient, to simply cut the people out.

The upshot of all of that is the current worldwide crisis of youth unemployment. The numbers in this country are uncertain, but anecdotally, it seems that only one in 10 young people can expect to find a job within their first years of adulthood. It’s not much different in other parts of the world.

While it’s easy to explain why we are where we are, it’s not so simple to suggest a solution. In reading and researching these issues I am starting to come across a call for a change in the way businesses view their role in society and, should it take on, it might provide a glimmer of hope.

The kind of thinking that led to replacing inefficient, expensive people with machines is based on the Milton Friedman view of business that says the only purpose of a company is to make a profit for its shareholders. According to that paradigm, it’s simple – do the thing that realises the greatest profit and if you no longer employ a generation of new workers each year, so what?

There is a new attitude, articulated by supporters of the conscious capitalism movement, that is based on the notion that while capitalism and a free market system has the power to do good, it can only do so if it accepts that it’s not only about profit for the shareholders.

There are many stakeholders in a business: the shareholders, sure, but also the customers, suppliers, staff, the environment and the community you operate in.

Of relevance during Youth Month is the idea of a company seeing itself as part of the community, and accepting some responsibility for building that community – how else do you do that other than by creating a future for young people?

And that future has to include work.

It’s clear that one of the causes of the youth unemployment crisis is the no experience- no job-no job – no experience vicious circle. One way to break this cycle is to give young people the required experience in a way which does not obligate you to employ them permanently. And there is an established mechanism for doing that – internships.

The Star’s WorkSA project is all about encouraging companies to open their doors to young people through internships, to give them the opportunity to get hands-on experience and become employable. And once they have created a group that has that experience we hope the companies will move beyond a narrow, profit-first, approach and contribute to community building by employing young people again.

Theo Garrun, Editor of the Star Workplace and Project Manager, WorkSA

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