CRISIS: The education system, which took in more than 1-million pupils in 2000, generated fewer than 350,000 matriculants 12 years later. Picture: THINKSTOCK

CENSUS 2011 confirmed that South Africa is a young country — half the population is younger than 25 and two-thirds are under the age of 35.

The potential of many of these young people is being wasted. Of the 9-million South Africans between the ages of 15 and 25, as many as 3.2-million are unemployed. One reason for this is the crisis in schooling, an indicator of which is that the system, which took in more than 1-million pupils in 2000, generated fewer than 350,000 matriculants 12 years later.

It is statistics such as these that explain why too many young people are left without hope. Many feel trapped in their circumstances, unable to overcome the challenges they confront on their own. Many of the most serious of these problems are not of their making: most live in poor neighbourhoods and go to dysfunctional schools. On leaving school, they confront an economy that generates too few jobs for those with limited skills while also providing too little access to training that could increase their employability.

Many young people have no clear idea how to look for the jobs that are available. They have limited access to networks that might link them to job opportunities, largely because they come from households where few people work and where many have been unemployed for substantial periods of time. A growing number of young people are living in environments of multigenerational unemployment. In such circumstances, they often become resigned to never finding a job.

Those who do look for work often use ineffective job-search strategies. They send out their CV hoping this will entice someone to employ them; they give up on jobs because they do not feel comfortable in the work environment; and they wait until they find an ideal job, rather than gaining work experience in a job that is less than ideal while keeping an eye out for better opportunities.

There is evidence from Cape Town and KwaZulu-Natal that some young people — men, in particular — will not accept jobs that pay too little or offer limited employment security. Some will not take jobs perceived to provide insufficient income to establish a family and a household.

Many chronically unemployed young people still live in rural areas, where employment opportunities are very limited. In the northern KwaZulu-Natal municipal district of Uthungulu, for example, only 28% of black people between the ages of 15 and 65 have jobs. In the neighbouring district of Zululand, the figure is 20%. In the urban areas of Gauteng, where 47% of working-age black people have jobs, employment prospects are significantly better. Why, then do people stay in the rural areas?

One possibility is that the differences in employment prospects in each area (particularly for recent arrivals to the cities) are not wide enough to encourage more rapid migration. It may be, therefore, that if more jobs were being created in the cities, urbanisation rates among the young would accelerate dramatically. Crime rates and perceptions of crime in the cities could also be a factor holding people back.

There is much we still need to learn. If South Africa is to develop a youth policy that seeks to expand opportunity, we need to know more than we do now.

How are young women and young men responding to the challenge of finding a job? Is there a difference between the responses of men and women, urban and rural youth, the skilled and the unskilled? How does access to familial support networks and government grants affect their participation in the labour force? What guidance do young people get about how the job market works? If staying in rural areas is more attractive than moving to a town or city, why is this so?

Government-led initiatives implemented since 1994 have been marked by ambitious promises, but they are only seldom converted into practical, large-scale programmes. Even when youth programmes have been implemented, their effects have not been evaluated properly, making it impossible to focus resources on what works and drop what does not. And, while numerous youth agencies within the government have proclaimed the importance of pressing critical ministries into adopting a "youth focus", it is hard to see whether this has had a discernible effect on education, employment or growth policies.

By far the most important set of policy interventions required to change the prospects of young people stuck in multigenerational unemployment is to find ways of increasing wage employment. The scale of South Africa’s youth unemployment makes expanding low-skill employment an urgent priority. The potential consequences of getting this right or wrong are enormous, so a Cabinet-level focus on addressing the challenges faced by young people is appropriate.

More jobs will be created only once South Africa significantly accelerates and sustains higher economic growth. To do this, we need to increase the rate of investment and remove the barriers that inhibit labour-intensive forms of employment. Only in this way can we get young people into the economy, get them out of long-term unemployment and put them on a viable earnings path.

A subsidiary policy focus ought to be on minimising the obstacles that prevent unemployed young people from finding work. South Africa needs to develop policies and institutions that will help them compete more effectively with those who have better resources and connections to the labour market. This requires a dramatic improvement in schooling and access to appropriate guidance about life after school and how the labour market works. There may also be an important role for well-run and accountable organisations devoted to challenges facing young people. These do not have to be run by young people to be effective.

Such organisations could be promoting experimental ways of providing young people with mentoring, training opportunities, linkages to the labour market and useful work experience. Programmes such as this exist but they tend to run on a small scale and their effect and cost-effectiveness is seldom properly assessed. Experimental programmes are required that start small, are rigorously monitored and evaluated and are scaled up on the basis of demonstrated success.

Government funding should be much better used in this area. It is not necessary to consume vast amounts in paying well-connected young people to run these organisations. What is important is that public resources are used effectively to help as many young people as possible. Organisations need to be judged by outcomes and results.

According to the National Planning Commission, policies should be viewed through a youth lens for the next 20 years.

What this will require is a realistic focus on the scale of the challenge and the implementation of effective policies that will make a real difference. This starts with reforms that create an environment where investors are encouraged to start businesses that require lots of labour coupled with the political will to make the reforms necessary to start improving the quality of schooling for the majority of young people.

Whether this approach would be appropriately characterised as a "youth policy" is not important. What matters is that it is the only platform for significantly reducing the vast human potential South Africa currently wastes.

• Bernstein is executive director of the Centre for Development and Enterprise (CDE). This article is based on a new CDE publication, Coping with Unemployment: Young People’s Strategies and Their Policy Implications.