Mindsets may be more important than skillsets in the battle against unemployment

The right job and the right attitude can help young people free themselves and their communities from the shackles of poverty, and we need to do more to create these conditions so that South African youth can thrive.

There is a much-cited maxim, borne out by research, that the longer an individual lives in poverty, the less likely they are to escape it. And – the flip side of that socioeconomic and existential coin – is that the longer people are able to stay out of poverty, the less likely they are to transition back into poverty.

There are some painful and worrying lessons here for South Africa. This is a country, after all, where intergenerational wealth sits uncomfortably and so visibly alongside intergenerational poverty, where children born into poverty are more than likely to remain poor, or, as the World Economic Forum put it in its ‘Global Social Mobility Index 2020’, “an individual’s opportunities in life remain tethered to their socio-economic status at birth, entrenching historical inequalities”.

Well-paid work is one way out of that cycle, the World Economic Forum report says.

That’s borne out locally by Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) research, which shows that, after race, access to the labour market within a household is “the single most important determinant of poverty entry and exit”. Meaning, simply, that having a decent job can help individuals – and entire households – break free of the cycle of intergenerational poverty.

Businesses have their part to play in creating jobs, but there are also things that other sectors, and individuals themselves can do to improve their chances of finding – and staying in a job. And it could be as simple as changing the way they think about and understand work.

New mindsets for the world of work

Ryan le Roux, CEO of the Leva Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to helping individuals enter the economy through sustainable employment, believes the challenges that young South African job seekers face are considerable. “For those lucky enough to have work, they are often forced by their circumstances to accept menial jobs with long hours, poor pay, and sometimes hostile work environments,” he explains. “I often hear young people questioning why they should they suffer such indignities, working in the same kinds of jobs as the previous generation, without reaping any lasting material rewards. “Why suffer the mockery of my unemployed friends for having such a job?” they ask.”

It is a valid concern, le Roux says, and addressing it is complex. On one level, creating a different calibre of job for young unemployed youth becomes important; something that enables them to get a toehold in the economy, while offering a path to self empowerment and changing the way they think about their work and career. He believes South Africa’s thriving coffee culture has significant promise in this regard. It was while living in Spain as a professional rugby player, that le Roux was inspired by that country’s coffee culture and abundance of baristas to start a barista training academy in South Africa that enables young people desperate to gain a foothold in the economy.

“As every coffee lover will testify, baristas are the heart and soul of coffee shops. The job has that ‘cool’ factor, and can give baristas not just an income (modest initially, for sure) but also purpose, opportunities and, perhaps most importantly, dignity.”

On another level, le Roux stresses the need to ensure that young people have the right skills for the work that is available to them. “But from my own research – and from speaking to hundreds of businesspeople and young job seekers – I’ve learned that more than skills, the right attitude among those applying for entry-level positions is key. Businesses want people who will turn up on time and add value to the business.”

This is why, le Roux says, that at the Red Band Barista Academy, an initiative of the Leva Foundation, their opening course is run by partner organisation Work 4 A Living over two weeks. Here they set out to teach students how to add value to a business, how to break their own poverty mind-set, and how to discard any sense of entitlement – a characteristic that some have sought to study and measure among South African millennials.

“Only then do we move onto a course on coffee and hospitality skills, which equips them to become fully-fledged baristas.”

Bridging the gap between NPOs and corporates to scale up impact

As proud as he is of the Red Barista Academy, Le Roux recognises that it is just a drop in the ocean of what is needed. And to scale up these kinds of initiatives – that work with changing the mindsets as well as the skills sets of young people – he believes that corporates and NPOs need to work more closely together.

While brushing up on his own skillset, studying an international MBA at Henley Business School Africa, le Roux took a deep dive into this problem to explore the disconnect between these entities. He found that over the past decade, support from corporates to the not-for-profit sector has dropped off, in large part because corporates have lost trust in the abilities of the sector. Instead, they’ve moved a lot of that ‘outreach’ work in-house through their own social responsibility activities. But they’re not always designed or equipped to understand the on-the-ground realities of the communities where they work, Roux explains, while NPOs are rooted in those contexts.

“With some notable exceptions, business for the most part is geared towards profit and NPOs towards purpose. But, as Jon Foster-Pedley, dean and director of Henley Africa frequently argues, the energies of a business (or a business school for that matter) should not be directed solely towards making money. “Rather, its focus should be on making a difference. And by working together, business and NPOs, I believe, could make more of a difference, says Le Roux. He is also a board member of Henley Business School Africa’s MBAid action learning programme, which facilitates an in-depth partnership between individual students and NPOs.

“I have often been asked what makes me believe that we can still change things in South Africa,” le Roux says. “My answer is because I can see it, in the faces of young people; how they come alive when they realise that they can free themselves and their communities from poverty through the work they do.

Quite simply, we need more such jobs and opportunities and we’re more likely to achieve this by working together than alone.”

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