Investing in our youth to help business flourish

South Africa’s established business owners, no matter how old they are, have a lot more to do with youth entrepreneurship than meets the eye, and it not only relates to the fact that many of them are hoping their children will take over the business one day.

Dave Morobe, Business Partners Limited Regional Manager, says business owners have both a vested interest in encouraging young South Africans to become entrepreneurs, and a responsibility as citizens to do so.

This is because youth unemployment is so dire that it threatens the future of our businesses and our children. Since the economic downturn, it is estimated that nearly 40% of the world’s working-age youth are unemployed, says Dave, but the really scary statistic is that 90% of them are from developing countries such as South Africa. Anyone who still doubts the extent of South Africa’s unemployment crisis should drive through any one of the country’s townships to see the number of youths standing idle by the roadside. If they are not given an opportunity to participate meaningfully in the economy “the devil will take hold of those idle hands” and threaten everyone’s future, including that of the businesses we’ve built, says Dave.

Fostering entrepreneurship is key to tackling the problem, because it is only through starting new businesses and growing the economy that it will be able to absorb the destitute youth. And business owners young and old are uniquely placed to help make it happen in a number of ways.

First, established business owners are living, local role models of what can be done if you choose to work for yourself. Every business owner can and should become an active role model, and carry the message into their local schools, churches, clubs, chambers and associations.

Second, mentorship cannot be underestimated, says Dave. Advice, guidance, the loan of a machine or work space or even just a well-timed word of encouragement can pull a shaky beginner business through the treacherous first few years.

But the third and most comprehensive way in which business owners can and do help to foster entrepreneurship in South Africa is by training up young school leavers and graduates – not necessarily in entrepreneurship, but in technical and work experience by taking them on as workers or interns.

Dave says the idea of youth entrepreneurship is often mistakenly conflated with the myth of “if you can’t find a job, start a business”. In fact, work experience is crucial to anyone who wants to succeed in starting their own business one day. Probably the single biggest contributor to young people’s first work experience is the owner-managed business. Large companies can afford to appoint experienced employees and already-qualified technicians and workers. Small businesses can’t, so they hire unqualified people off the street and train them on the job.

Dave says South Africa owes a huge debt to owner-managed businesses for fulfilling this role, but that even more can be done. Apprenticeships and internships, where the youth work for a stipend in return for on-the-job training, are under-developed in South Africa. What is needed is a “social pact” between government, labour and business that will make it possible for apprenticeships and internships to flourish, whether it be through a youth employment programme or some other mechanism.

Such a pact would be ideal, but businesses can’t afford to wait for it, and should continue and increase their efforts, says Dave.

He acknowledges the difficulty faced by business owners with the endless on-the-job training they do. They are extremely busy, and often the time spent training youngsters costs more than they get in return from the trainees, at least in the beginning. Another problem is that as soon as a worker gained some experience, they are often poached by larger, better-paying companies.

Dave urges business owners to take a philosophical view of this. When you train up a youngster, you never know what might come from it – he might turn into a star worker, and later even a business partner, he might go on to work for a larger company and send business opportunities your way one day. Whatever happens, business owners can rest assured that the energy they spend on training youngsters is making South Africa a better place – a place where all businesses can flourish.