Leanne Emery Hunter: Changing The Future of Youth Employment

By Jessie Taylor

“We urgently need to accelerate programmes and interventions that get youth into catalytic jobs if we have any hope of creating a future that works. That’s what gets us up in the morning at YES.” Two in three South African youth are jobless, based on the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey by Stats SA, and children are unlikely to experience a better life than their parents, based on South Africa’s ranking on the World Economic Forum’s Global Social Mobility Index 2020.

Without access to youth employment programmes, such as the Youth Employment Service (YES), it will take nine generations for a person born into poverty to reach a median income level, making it clear that South Africa needs to accelerate solutions to its youth unemployment crisis. Leanne Emery Hunter, COO at YES, is at the front of the battle to create a more equal society. YES is a 12-month quality work experience that equips unemployed youth with a toolkit to be a beacon of hope for their families, households and communities.

In February 2023, YES passed the 100 000 youth jobs created milestone, making it the largest scale job creation programme in South Africa entirely funded by the private sector. The impact on social mobility is considerable: 61% of YES Youth come from social grant-recipient households, and 77% have dependents. Around R6 billion has been injected into local economies through YES Youth salaries, with no government funding. Emery Hunter sat down with Public Sector Leaders to discuss her role in changing the country’s future:

Why is it important to create employment for youth?

We must get as many of our youth as possible into meaningful roles in the economy, especially in future-facing industries that will create a multiplier effect of creating more jobs. The youth of South Africa has enormous potential to change the social and economic trajectory of SA, yet this potential remains largely untapped. On its own, no one programme can directly generate enough youth jobs to compensate for the lack of economic growth and the numerous structural challenges South Africa faces.

However, if programmes are catalytic in their structure, they can have a longer-term multiplier effect that far exceeds the direct jobs created. The over 100 000 jobs created through YES have helped give young people the skills, work experience, and social networks they need to contribute to the economy for the next 40 years and beyond. We’ve created jobs with impact that will act as a catalyst to create more employment inside and outside their current job sectors. These future professionals, entrepreneurs and change-makers will drive our economic prosperity in the years to come.

When did you first discover your passion for helping youth find employment?

I’ve worked in industries from telecoms to professional services to education. Still, I have always been passionate about youth development (particularly young women) and education, so I feel like I have found my home at YES. I am an ex-ballet dancer, and I ran my part-time dancing studio from a young age for ten years, which perhaps instilled in me a love of teaching and working with young people. I’ve worked with numerous charitable organisations throughout the years, but YES was a total game-changer for me – the catalytic socio and economic effects of getting young people into jobs have been the most rewarding (and challenging) of my life.

What motivates you in your role?

I want to be a part of the solution in South Africa, and I care deeply about youth empowerment. I am so fortunate to work in an organisation that challenges me as a leader daily but also allows me to build things from the ground up and feed into my purpose. It’s much easier to get up every day when you know that what you do makes a real, meaningful impact, and this helps me through the tough days. I am also surrounded by smart, passionate, and like-minded people at YES who are equally invested in tackling this crisis, which is extremely motivating.

What kind of leader would you describe yourself as?

I would like to think that I am a collaborative, strategic, client-centric and empowering leader who can create positive momentum in high-growth organisations. I thrive in challenging and impact-driven organisations (particularly start-up-type environments) and am very focused on supporting teams and the organisation to deliver to corporate clients and youth. How to deliver results while empowering and bringing out the best in teams and individuals is what keeps me up at night. YES allows me to work in a fast-paced corporate-facing environment while tying into purposeful work that makes a true impact in society and satisfies my head and heart.

What are the highs and lows that come with your role?

The impact of the work we do is what gets me through the challenging times. It is not often that you get to work in a role that is so aligned with your purpose. Seeing the impact that the dignity of a job has on individuals, families, and communities is very rewarding and seeing what youth are capable of when given a chance is incredibly inspiring.

Besides the normal challenges of working in and scaling a young organisation (YES is only four years old), the most crushing low in my role is the magnitude of the crisis we face. Given challenges such as the low rates of economic growth, power cuts leading to job cuts, education and many more, South Africa is currently producing neither the volume nor type of jobs required to reverse the current unemployment trend.

Currently, more than 400 000 new jobseekers enter the market every year, but the country has only created around an average of 150 000 net jobs per year over the past 10 years. We urgently need to accelerate programmes and interventions that get youth into catalytic jobs if we have any hope of creating a future that works. That’s what gets us up in the morning at YES.