There is a meme which is shared on social media which reflects a group of cute kids in their overalls and hard hats on a study tour and its often captioned “when employers want ten years of experience before the age of 22”.

Economists have often commented that South Africa does not possess the active labor market policies so support youth absorption into the labor market. Last week’s announcement by Minister of Public Service and Administration, that the state will no longer require experience for entry level jobs is an important development in the journey of fighting youth unemployment. While this announcement was only made last week, it has been a policy decision which has been actively lobbied and advocated for the last twelve months led by the National Youth Development Agency Board of Directors.

We undertake to use research developed by our social partners such as Harambee and by Statistics South Africa to influence the way policy is set in South Africa. If we consider the Quarterly Labor Force Survey of Q4, 2017, employment rates increase consistently with more education, but there is also a persistent employment gap between younger and older work-seekers. This gap is usually explained as a requirement for work experience. For example, for those who possess matric in the age group 40 – 44, employment is almost 80%, while for those in the age group, 20 – 24 the employment rate is closer to 40%. Thus, although education increases the likelihood of finding a job, it does not erase other barriers to employment.

Employers are often concerned that Matric is not a guarantee of foundational skills like numeracy and literacy as the quality of basic education is generally low. Thus, employers may ask applicants for further academic requirements for entry-level jobs as a signal of quality. For example, only 21% of the approximately 400 000 learners who passed Matric in 2017 also passed Mathematics with 40% or more). Employers are also increasingly looking for soft skills, such as initiative, persistence and leadership, in the people that they hire – qualities that are difficult for young people to signal without a point of referral such as prior work experience. Organisations such as the OECD have commented on the high levels of mismatch in the SA labour market, implying that, in many cases, employees chosen are not the most suitable for the job in question.

We must challenge employers to look beyond academic qualifications and focus instead on the specific characteristics required by their jobs and businesses in hiring young employees to improve their matches. This is even more critical in the fourth industrial revolution where a premium is placed on soft skills such as resilience and high emotional intelligence. Employers could consider developing job profiles that include both hard and soft skill requirements, and using appropriate matching and assessment tools to identify these traits in potential hires. In many cases this approach has paid off, and employers have acknowledged the positive impact of holistically matching candidates with job requirements instead of searching for the highest qualified candidate overall.

Formal education is obviously important, but it is not a silver bullet to solve youth unemployment. The high premium that employers place on work experience shows gaps between formal education and work readiness. Many people learn their most valuable skills on the job. Yet the traditional success model in South African labour markets remains school to university to employment. We must envision a new paradigm for the labour market, which includes multiple paths to economic engagement. The main message of this paradigm is that everyone should be able to find a way to sustainable income through work.

Waseem Carrim is the CEO of the NYDA.