OPINION| Are internships the way to address unemployment?

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We close Youth Month on a sad note. Twenty-one young people lost their lives at Enyobeni Tavern in East London. Events like this remind us how at-risk our young people are, often from themselves. The unbridled war of our times, the need to keep a watch and help especially young people in the times we are living in. The outlook is not so good, despite the rallying cry for intensifying concerted efforts to assist young people.

The latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey from Statistics South Africa shows an increase in youth unemployment. So unstable is the situation that oscillations are evident. For instance, in the Eastern Cape, where I am based, figures from the Eastern Cape Socio-Economic Consultative Council Quarterly Labour Force Survey reveal a noted decrease to 45% in terms of the unemployment rate in the province. Yet the national tally in terms of the youth unemployment rate is soaring. Among the youth cohort from ages 25 to 34, over 40% are unemployed.

Concerning is the 63.9% unemployment rate for those cohort aged 25 and 34. At the summit of this age group are the products of higher education institutions in graduates at 32.6%. All this is described as our job bloodbath.

One noted effort in addressing the youth unemployment challenge is the use of internship programmes.

The idea here is to get youth into sectors where skills gaps are evident to increase their employability through work experience. Such sectors where human capital could be required include the public service, often gaining notoriety as blotted and inefficient.

On paper, internships, especially those targeting youth, may appear noble and with well-intended aims to address the youth unemployment challenge.

Yet in reality, the efficacy of such efforts could potentially be taking us nowhere quickly. This appears to be the admission from the government. Internships may potentially increase the unemployment pool.

In the past 18 months, I have been collecting data, especially with young people who have been working in internship programmes run within different public service entities.

These range from business functional areas such as human resources, supply chain, information technology, logistics, and agricultural management services. These young people join over 43 000 of their counterparts in internship programmes offered by the government nationally.

So what is working in youth internship programmes?

A starting point here is an appreciation of being in some form of employment. The idea of waking up in the morning and being part of the workforce is appreciated.

For some of the youths in our sample, the internship programme was the first window to learn about the world of work. Accompanying this is the development of a repertoire of soft skills. These skills included time management, problem-solving, teamwork and leadership insight.

Such skills become helpful in enhancing the intern's portfolio, including subsequent employability.

For some young people, the internship experience offered gainful employment. A capability argued within the positive psychology literature where the intern is a recipient of work and payment for self-sufficiency.

Coupled with this, interns in our study prioritised the need and desire to be able to assist the immediate family financially through their meagre earnings. Such a situation was a means of an ephemeral existential contribution, albeit the lack of permanency and uncertainty that comes with internships.

Yet amid the success stories, a murky morass complicates things, potentially making internships a modern-day exploitative experience.

Further, internships may exist as a masquerade in our efforts to address the skills challenge. The rigid labour market system potentially stalls our progress.

The ominous challenges are plenteous. First, there is the challenge of getting into the internship programme. An experience often reduced to the probability of who you know. Mention was made of middle men often requiring a service charge to guarantee one a place on the internship programme. For many young people, applying for such internship programmes is a substantial emotional and financial investment.

Potentially this reduces a programme meant to assist often marginalised young people to be elitist in nature. This opens up some to be exploited. Some of our participants even narrated sordid experiences of requests for sexual favour to guarantee a position as an intern. The price one pays to attain skills.

Second, interns are often exploited in the same internship experiences they are taking part in. Their voices muttered platitudes such as “you are fortunate to have some form of work, be grateful”.

So being lucky to at least have an internship experience amid the soaring unemployment rate becomes a proxy to silence youth voices in exploitative work environments.

Third, interns are also often exploited in terms of the work they are engaged in. Usually, this includes doing all the hard, routine and mundane work. Some of this work is not necessarily related to the intern’s job description.

Our attention should be two-fold in nature.

First, from a national government perspective, let us re-visit the very efficacy of internship programmes in addressing the youth unemployment challenge.

Could rogue behaviours in the system potentially be destroying our efforts of skills acquisition? On the altar should be an honest critique of the current provincial and national programmes in assisting young people.

Second, there is also a need to address ground challenges around the intern as a critical organisational actor.

Interns should be getting skills and needed work experience and not being sent to buy lunch for the office.

Advocacy is necessary here, especially for interns. The priority should be on promoting decent work conditions for interns despite them not having a permanent workplace status. The lack of such a status should not relegate interns to exploitation.

If all work is noble, we need to continually introspect in enhancing the internship experience (or re-think if we really need such efforts). For the greater good of the country, there is no substitute for quality.

Chinyamurindi is a professor at the University of Fort Hare and head of the Department of Business Management. He writes in his personal capacity.