10. Helping young people in South Africa bridge the gap between intention and behaviour in their search for work

Eliana Carranza
World Bank
Martin Abel
Middlebury College
Rulof Burger
Stellenbosch University
Patrizio Piraino
University of Cape Town
Nilmini Herath
Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab

Over one-third of South Africa’s youth is unemployed and becoming increasingly discouraged in its job search

South Africa, like many countries, faces an enormous burden of youth unemployment, with more than one-third of 15 to 34 year-olds without work in the first quarter of 2018 (Statistics South Africa, 2018[1]). Anecdotal evidence suggests that high and persistent unemployment is making South African youth feel increasingly discouraged in their search for work. Indeed, the job seekers in our sample of youth who were motivated enough to come to a job centre spent an average of 11 hours per week searching for employment, but submitted only approximately four applications per month. These youth want to intensify their job search, and they set aside the time and make plans to do so; however, their behaviour does not match their intentions. We set out to understand whether there were simple, low-cost, accessible tools that could help unemployed youth to follow through on their job search goals (Abel et al., 2018[2]).

Bridging the gap between intention and behaviour in job search using action plans

Inspired by insights from psychology literature about the use of plan-making prompts to bridge the gap between intention and behaviour, our team set out to test the following question: If young people make a concrete plan for their job hunt, does that help them to follow through on that plan, to search more effectively for work, and ultimately to be more likely to gain employment?

Evidence shows that planning and scheduling tasks can help people follow through on a variety of behaviours, from voting to exercising. To extend this to job hunting, we designed a job search plan template and launched a field experiment in collaboration with the South African Department of Labour (DoL). We worked with the DoL to randomly split 1100 unemployed youth from Johannesburg who were participating in the DoL’s standard 90-minute career-counselling workshops into two groups. The control group participated in just the workshop, while the treatment group received extra encouragement and guidance on completing our job search plan template alongside the workshop.

The job search plan was designed to be simple, accessible and scalable. The template required participants to identify what they would do (e.g. search for work online) and when they would do it (e.g. Tuesday afternoons) and to add details on where/how they would do it (e.g. identify specific websites for an online search). The participants set weekly goals for how many hours they planned to search and how many applications they planned to submit. The template did not require participants to search in a certain way or to have any particular qualifications, making it accessible to all. It encouraged respondents to think carefully about their personal situation and design a plan that worked around their commitments and constraints. Running the experiment with the DoL and using its career counsellors to deliver the intervention enabled us to test a model for an action plan that was low cost, scalable and could be implemented by the government.

Action plans can help youth to follow through on their job search intentions, search more efficiently and find work

Encouraging unemployed youth to make action plans helped them to follow through on their job search intentions and become more efficient in doing so. Participants who completed the job search plan increased the number of job applications they submitted without increasing the time they spent searching.

Youth who were encouraged to make an action plan also adopted a more effective search strategy by diversifying their approach. They used significantly more formal search channels, such as visiting employment agencies, responding to advertisements and searching for jobs online, compared to the control group, which mainly relied on informal search channels, such as asking family members and friends.

These gains in job search efficiency and effectiveness markedly improved employment outcomes. Job seekers in the plan-making group received 24% more responses from employers, 30% more job offers, and were 26% more likely to be employed at the time of follow-up compared to the control group.

What next?

Plan making can be a cheap, accessible and easy-to-implement addition to existing active labour market policies, which have typically yielded modest results. Our study shows that guided job search plans can be beneficial to unemployed youth in an urban South African context. As such, we recommend that plan making is considered as a tool to deal with youth unemployment in contexts where there are potential gains to be made from more effective job search strategies. However, further research is needed to determine whether plan making works in other contexts, the differences in impact on a broader set of sub-groups, and the long-term effects on job search behaviour.


This research was conducted in collaboration with and with support from the World Bank Africa Gender Innovation Lab and the Jobs Group.


[2] Abel, M. et al. (2018), Bridging the Intention-Behavior Gap? The Effect of Plan-Making Prompts on Job Search and Employment, http://www.dropbox.com/s/ih26pzvjsk6nhez/Abel%20et%20al%202018%20.

[1] Statistics South Africa (2018), Youth unemployment still high in Q1:2018, Statistics South Africa, http://www.statssa.gov.za/?p=11129.

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