H&M partners with Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation to create opportunities for disadvantaged youth
Nine-month-long Youth@Work programme aims to upskill young people
Strengthening young people’s opportunities for employment and equipping them with the necessary skills to enter the job market are critical pathways to reducing inequality and building incomes.
This is the belief of fashion retailer H&M that in partnership with the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, run a Youth@Work programme that provides opportunities to disadvantaged youth between the ages of 17 to 20.
We speak to Razaan Bailey (RB), programme director at the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation, and Oldouz Mirzaie (OM), country manager of H&M SA, about this vital initiative.
What is the Youth@Work programme and its objectives?
RB: The programme is a partnership between the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation (D<F) and H&M SA, specifically designed to address the issues of rising unemployment among young people, in particular young women, and to help them make informed career decisions and find meaningful employment.
Students participate in a nine-month programme in the Western Cape to help develop their skills for employment and instil a strong sense of citizenship. They receive personal and professional skills training; service-learning opportunities and engage in job shadowing and mentoring exercises.
Why does H&M see itself as a fitting partner in the programme?
OM: Before H&M launched its first store in this country, we knew we wanted to have a social footprint in SA; to really make a difference.
The H&M Foundation (a non-profit global foundation funded by the Persson family, the main shareholders of the H&M Group) approached the D<F to collaboratively develop a programme to drive lasting, positive change through investment in both people and in catalytic, innovative ideas.
In 2015, the D<F, in partnership with the H&M Foundation, launched the Youth@Work programme. In 2019, H&M SA took over the partnership with foundation.
With a strong footprint of stores in locations across SA, and with more than 1,000 employees, we knew we could offer more, and we felt the responsibility to do so.
How many jobs have been created through this programme to date?
RB: Over the past four years we’ve had 209 learners pass through the nine-month programme. Of these, 100 have found employment and 90 are currently studying, with some graduating this year.
You recently hosted a Career Day attended by 36 Youth@Work students?
RB: It was a wonderful day - a really immersive and engaging one. Thirty six students (mostly young women) attended the Career Day to gain practical, hands-on experience in a broad retail environment.
We wanted them to understand the wide scope that the fashion retail environment offers, as well as stretch their thinking, expand their perspectives and, of course, enhance their social networking skills.
We also wanted them to see the day as an opportunity to potentially discover a role that really inspired them, more than just a job … something that matched their personal values to H&M’s strong company values.
How did you address these issues on Career Day?
OM: By introducing the students to the wide scope of the business. The day began at our V&A Waterfront flagship store, where the students met store colleagues - from sales advisers to store managers, visual merchandisers and previous Youth@Work students who’ve subsequently been employed by H&M. This was truly valuable as they were able to share their own journeys of what it took to get where they are today.
They then moved on to what most refer to as “HQ”, but we call our “support office”. Here our common goal is: “How can we be the best support to our store teams and be the best we can be as an employer?”
The students listened to specific presentations from different departments within H&M. They learnt about our company values and more about practical skills such as interview and CV best practices.
They also personally engaged and interacted with managers in various career roles - from HR to marketing and communications, information technology, accounting and sustainability - and everything in between.
Fashion design is an obvious career choice in the industry. What are some of the other career options?
OM: Careers in the fashion industry span numerous skills and talents. I’ve personally engaged in many of these roles throughout my own career path. At H&M we hire based on attitude and not necessarily formal qualifications. I started out as a part-time sales assistant, moving onto other roles and ultimately taking up leadership positions.
Fashion retail can accommodate many career interests, from pattern-making right through to logistics and customer service. On Career Day, The Youth@Work students really got to experience the job diversity on offer, and many were quite surprised by the variety of work the fashion industry provides.
Realistically, how accessible are these career alternatives to SA youth?
OM: Well that’s a vital issue and, sadly, a huge problem in our country at present. In fact, at the Sustainable Fashion Africa Summit hosted by H&M in April this year, this was one of the most pertinent subject matters addressed. The burden of youth unemployment is huge. Much of this burden falls on young women who are unable to find jobs or forge careers after school.
Programmes similar to Youth@Work undoubtedly help to open doors for our youth, but SA needs more doors to be opened; we need more opportunity for employment, for skills transfer, for hands-on learning and mentorship.
How do you see this working?
OM: Through programmes such as Youth@Work and also through other institutions and economic enablers. Brands and companies hold great power and responsibility. They need to ask: how inclusive is our employment advertising and policies? How transparent is our recruitment process, and how fair is it to potential candidates? How do we develop and upskill our employees?
Of course, only true collaboration - among government, industry leaders, investors and change-makers, will address the challenges of creating and sustaining jobs. At H&M we’re determined to play our part in seeing that future come to fruition.
This article was paid for by H&M.