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Innovative Working Student Programme Needs Work For Students To Flourish

students preparing for exam

A pilot programme to help disadvantaged students obtain a degree or postgraduate qualification, with work experience and without debt, has struggled to achieve its ambitions as work opportunities for students dwindle in an unbelievably difficult economy that has been rocked by the pandemic.

The ProudAfrique Working Student Programme, launched in April 2020 by ProudAfrique Human Capital (PAHC), is designed to uplift poor black youths who want to study further and build their CVs for future employment opportunities, while offering South African businesses a meaningful way to improve their B-BBEE score by leveraging skills expenditure on the scorecard. Students earn an income while they study and receive a full bursary through the Working Student Programme to remove student debt. Currently, 75% of the students on the programme are black females, the demographic most vulnerable to unemployment.

“What we have learned from the pilot of our Working Student Programme is that we were not prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. The persistent lockdowns, shrinking economy and rising unemployment have created a perfect storm that has thwarted our ambitions to get the participants on our Working Student Programme into jobs, even though the students were already receiving a stipend that matched the basic minimum wage.

“The academic and life skills components of the programme have been tremendously successful but we are grappling with bridging the employment gap. Of the 16 students on the programme in 2021, only five are actively working while some have engaged in volunteer work. In 2022, we are planning to expand the programme and include 30 new students, making the challenge even bigger.

“Spiralling unemployment levels indicate that the need for jobs is always going to be greater than the ability of companies to accommodate working students. But, this does not mean that we cannot make a difference. We want to encourage forward thinking companies to help us grow the programme and help more students by opening opportunities in gateway jobs. At the same time, they can improve their B-BBEE scorecard. Having our students gain work experience while they study is essential to the success of the programme,” says Deon Oberholzer, CEO at Gestalt Group and Director at ProudAfrique Human Capital, which manages the programme.

Oberholzer stresses that the programme is distinguished from other internship and work-while-studying programmes because it removes the burden of debt when students qualify and importantly, equips them with life and work readiness skills to improve their employability, thereby creating more sustainable outcomes.

“Work readiness is severely lacking amongst the youth, many of whom have never had a proper job. Even those who manage to achieve a qualification struggle to find work because they have limited skills to enter the formal job market. Our Working Student Programme wants to fill the critical gap in work readiness in order to address the problem of ‘unemployability’ amongst the country’s youth,” says Oberholzer, who points out that graduate unemployment is 40.3% for those aged 15 to 24 and 15.5% among those aged 25 to 34 years[i].

On the Working Student Programme, participants receive work readiness training, job competency training, study support and mentorship while they focus on developing work skills. In addition, they are enrolled in the Keys to Life programme which teaches invaluable life skills to foster accountability, responsibility and sustainability. The Keys to Life programme is SETA accredited and B-BBEE compliant.

Companies benefit from B-BBEE skills development optimisation unlike any programmes currently available due to the programme’s unique structure that could them up several levels on their current scorecard.

“Companies get critical leverage on the scorecard for skills spending on higher education while employing high-performing candidates whose wages are claimable as skills development expenditure. It is an invaluable opportunity for companies to future proof their businesses with high calibre recruits starting at entry level. The programme also offers the flexibility to dovetail with the YES Programme and other learning initiatives within the company.”

Skills development, one of the priority elements on the B-BBEE scorecard, can earn a company up to 25 points, making it critical. But, it is expensive if it is not done wisely according to a proper strategy. The Working Student Programme represents a sound opportunity for maximising skills expenditure. However, Oberholzer says that the benefits go beyond achieving a higher B-BBEE score and meeting skills development requirements.

“The real reward is in nurturing the cream of South Africa’s youth on their road to greatness. The feedback we get from our students is validation that we are on the right track and that this programme has great potential to change lives. Several  of our current students would have been forced to abandon their tertiary studies had they not joined the Working Student Programme. We are exceptionally proud of their unwavering will to learn, to pursue their dreams to achieve a qualification, and break the cycle of poverty that has held them and previous generations of their families in its grips,” says Oberholzer.

Hear their stories at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=av6pMR07pL0

He concludes: “We have faced some challenges during our pilot of the Working Student Programme but we believe that they can be overcome with constant innovation. When lockdowns forced everyone to work and study at home, we pivoted and restructured the academic components to enable online learning. The students continued to receive their stipends, which in some cases helped feed their families during the pandemic.  The employment component remains a challenge but we will continue to knock at it with a jack hammer until we get it right.”

Companies that are interested in learning more about participating in the Working Student Programme as a means to optimise skills development expenditure for B-BBEE points, while contributing to the upliftment of aspiring students are encouraged to contact them at [email protected]. See the full Working Student Programme brochure here http://www.pahc.org.za/brochure/

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