When I first met Nwabisa, I knew she was bright and full of potential. Growing up in the townships of Port Elizabeth, South Africa, she had lost both of her parents to HIV, but she was determined to create a better future for herself. All her role models—school teachers, neighbors, even TV stars—had instilled the importance of attending university in her. Education was her way out of poverty; her achievement was their hope, and university was her ticket! So we at Ubuntu Education Fund did what most organizations would think was best for Nwabisa: We guided her toward college. We provided textbooks, after-school help, counseling, and everything in between to help her gain entrance to university. It was a triumphant moment in her life—she had made it. It was the perfect success story. Until it wasn’t.
Nwabisa dropped out after her first semester. She could not cope with the challenging course load and the adjustment to university life. She crashed against a “double barrier”—the disadvantage she was born into and the onerous expectations we had placed on her. She was not alone. Despite our best efforts, the majority of the high school children we worked with were failing out or not making it to college at all. Our intentions and motivations (like those of other NGOs) were in the right place. We believed that placing students into university was the most effective route out of poverty, especially in a community where youth unemployment still remains as high as 80 percent. However, it became clear that this singular path to success—one that was supposed to uplift students—was actually weighing them down.
Deviating from our initial approach proved difficult because of the dominant narrative of success: Attend college, then secure a high-paying job. Well-meaning development professionals, parents, policymakers, donors, NGOs, academic institutions, and governments—society in general—prescribe young people a limited range of acceptable options. Parents and teachers, desperate to see their children and students break out of poverty, focus children on incredibly narrow goals that are expected to have big returns. Donors want a guaranteed track to success, so they favor initiatives with tangible metrics, such as scholarship programs. But by projecting value on certain choices and discouraging alternatives, we severely inhibit students’ probability of success. Children growing up in the townships of South Africa and in the most impoverished areas around the world start life without the resources to thrive physically, emotionally, and academically. Limiting options for these groups on top of their existing disadvantage is harmful. We have to clear our minds of our preconceived notions and ask: What does success actually look like, especially for low-income youth who must overcome this double barrier to achieve it? Thinking about this question led us to create a vocational training and job-readiness program for out-of-school youth in Port Elizabeth’s townships. Over the past four years, our work has culminated into a three-pronged approach to breaking the double barrier.
1. Think beyond the traditional education system. Despite the prominence of higher education systems in the United States, for example, studies show that only 13 percent of Americans actually believe college graduates are adequately prepared for success in the workplace. We need to acknowledge that the current system is not working, but we also need to do more than accelerate students toward solutions that have a big, traditional payoff.
Recognizing this reality, many companies, foundations, and entrepreneurs are offering alternative, skills-based options to unemployed youth. Recently, code schools The Iron Yard and Code Fellows, and Operation HOPE, a financial empowerment nonprofit, partnered together to launch the Tech Opportunity Fund, a $45 million program that will expand access to the tech industry for underrepresented groups like women and people of color. McKinsey & Company has meanwhile founded its own youth employment program, Generation, which prepares young people for jobs in high-growth sectors such as health care, technology, retail, and skilled trades. An increasing interest in non-traditional learning is making it more acceptable for young people to look beyond university to achieve success.
2. Develop reliable employment pipelines. At Ubuntu and beyond, there is a growing awareness of the unique coping needs of youth who have been excluded from the world of professional development. Developing flexible and personalized career development tracks for these youth requires that businesses, nonprofits, and others engage in collective efforts.
A recent SSIR article describes how companies are doing more to invest in “opportunity youth,” including developing soft workplace skills and providing on-the-job mentoring. These sensitized approaches to hiring can make a significant impact on the long-term success of disadvantaged youth. The communications company Amobia hired Ubuntu graduate Olwethu, for example, after providing her with onsite training as a financial intern. Experience as an intern eased Olwethu’s transition into the workplace; she acclimated to the environment and developed important time management and communication skills.
Companies must also look internally and reassess their hiring practices. Youth development organizations can collaborate with employers to understand their needs, and inform their hiring and assessment processes. Instead of using rigid, quantitative criteria that often don’t apply to the job responsibilities at hand, human resources teams should examine the work ethic and potential of candidates.
3. Re-evaluate the end goal. We must not limit our ultimate goal to helping young people secure jobs; rather, we should enable them to attain long-term financial stability and success. The problems many vulnerable youth grapple with for most of their lives—poverty, poor health, insecure homes—do not simply disappear when they gain employment. To break out of poverty, young people must have sustained, multifaceted support both before and after they get a job.
In South Africa, where I have worked for more than 15 years, youth can enroll in technical and vocational colleges as early as Grade 9. Institutional initiatives like these, which are the highlight of the country’s new education plan, decrease the risk of students dropping out. They also have great potential to present vocational training as an exciting, legitimate, and even prestigious route for high school students. Normalizing alternatives can eliminate the stigma that students who don’t succeed in the traditional education system face and encourage them to pursue what works best for them, which increases their chances of success.
Our research found that youth who maintain their first job for 12 months have a significantly higher chance of remaining employed for the rest of their lives. To prevent students from falling through the cracks, Ubuntu’s retention specialists continue working with them after they are hired. Mentor check-ins, transportation assistance, and professional guidance are hugely helpful to entry-level employees who have minimal exposure to workplace dynamics. Furthermore, in low-income settings, health complications and/or family issues can easily escalate and threaten an employee’s ability to maintain a job. Programs like our sustained health care and household stability interventions enable students to overcome the complex challenges of poverty and focus on their professional goals. This combination of pre- and post-employment help makes the difference between landing a job and leveraging it to achieve stability.
While higher education holds enormous potential for a promising future, university is not always the answer. Nwabisa ended up returning to Ubuntu and training to become a barista. Young people like her need the space to envision their own dreams, unclouded by bias toward academic validation or achievement in “safe” industries. When freed from the pervasive pressures of higher education, they can get a fair chance at fully exploring the possibilities for their future. To achieve long-lasting results, we must continue to invest in diverse opportunities for unemployed youth, in better understanding the complex obstacles that they face, and in preparing them for opportunities we create for them. To truly transform lives, we must begin earlier and stay longer. Working together with corporate organizations, philanthropists, and educators, we can redefine the singular narrative of success.