From education to employment

Preparing young people for work: Innovations from South Africa

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on the young. Existing shortcomings in the education system have been compounded by abrupt changes in the labour market. As the skills that young people need rapidly evolve, how should we prepare them for twenty-first century jobs?

Solving this problem is one of the Edge Foundation’s primary goals. In seeking answers, we regularly look for innovations around the globe.

Most recently, this involved a virtual study tour to South Africa, where we uncovered some exciting new approaches to preparing young people for the world of work.

Here’s a taste of what we learned:

BluLever: Improving apprentice outcomes via workplace socialisation

In South Africa, youth unemployment is 55%. BluLever Education, a Johannesburg-based education startup, hopes to reduce this by offering targeted training for in-demand vocations. Edge has loved getting to know the company’s founders, Jess Roussos and Adam Collier, who visited the UK on a research mission two years ago. Since then, BluLever has begun offering vocational training to apprentice plumbers, of which there is a major shortage in South Africa. 

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Unfortunately, BluLever faced a problem – South Africa’s VET system suffers from what Jess and Adam call a major trust deficit. This largely results from training providers failing to fill the skills gap. Employers found that apprentices generally lacked the right mindset, technical and employability skills. To rebuild employer confidence, BluLever, therefore, launched an intensive 8-week readiness programme, called Leadership Base Camp.

Throughout this opportunity, candidates attend a 4-week fully residential base camp where they learn core life and work skills. Next, they spend four weeks studying on campus and shadowing a qualified plumber. By exploring plumbing before committing to an apprenticeship, candidates can decide if they are suited to the profession. The scheme also plays a key role in BluLever’s selection process, allowing them to match apprentices with the right employers.

Crucially, BluLever’s model is financed through a combination of candidate self-funding, employers, and social partners (such as the youth employment agency, Harambee). This joint financing model ensures that all stakeholders have a vested interest in success. BluLever’s employer readiness programme also prepares employers for managing apprentices and applying for funding grants. By priming both parties, employers are now more willing to engage with BluLever, while candidates better understand what they’re committing to. Once selected, apprentices access accredited technical training, combined with vital employability and soft skills through project-based learning so that this theme continues as a key part of their apprenticeship. 

BluLever’s model has seen great initial success. They are already planning to extend their approach into additional vocations, such as the electrical profession.

Harambee: A data-driven approach to placing young people in work

Harambee (one of BluLever’s key partners) is a non-profit youth work agency that places young people across South Africa into employment. The organisation has a network of approximately a million young people and has placed over 230,000 into work. Rob Urquhart, Harambee’s Impact and Research Lead, explained to Edge the organisation’s unconventional approach. Rather than simply seeking out candidates and trying to place them, they first secure empty positions. Next, using data, they dig into the detail of what skills are required to fill those roles. They then proactively fill candidates’ skill gaps until they’re appropriately qualified. 

To illustrate, one of Harambee’s clients – a casino – was struggling to hire croupiers. They were experiencing a high dropout rate after candidates undertook their in-house maths test. By unpicking the assessment, Harambee identified multiplicative reasoning as the key skill that the casino required and which candidates were lacking. They subsequently sourced Khan Academy modules relating to multiplicative reasoning, trained the best potential candidates for three weeks and then reassessed them. The pass rate increased by 67%.

Employer-led approaches often assume that employers know what they need. Harambee instead applies an interrogative approach, adopting a tenacious disregard for what employers at first say they want. Their data-driven approach involves some lateral thinking, too. For instance, instead of listing ‘missing skills’, Harambee encourages employers to seek out employees that are thriving to identify which skills lead to success. This approach is bold but unquestionably pragmatic. And the proof is in the pudding; return-on-investment calculations demonstrate that Harambee’s model is more effective than traditional recruitment techniques.

Lessons for the UK

At a glance, these cases studies may seem unique to the quirks of the South African training market. However, they touch on many of the same issues affecting us in the UK: trust, work-readiness, employability skills (and what this means) and employer-led training. As we adapt to a new economic reality, there is much we can learn from casting our net wide. Indeed, ensuring that young people grasp the best possible opportunities as we emerge from the pandemic counts on it. Let’s keep an open mind!

Olly Newton, Executive Director, Edge Foundation.

The Edge Foundation is an independent education charity dedicated to making learning relevant. It works to transform the way young people develop the skills and attitudes they need to succeed in the 21st century. 

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