EPWP (Re)-Skilling Tomorrow’s Workforce

The Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), a South African public employment programme (PEP), was launched in 2004 to address mass unemployment by creating short-term employment through labour-intensive projects. Since its implementation, the programme has employed millions of people and offered social protection through income and skills development. The programme prioritises the employment of vulnerable groups including women, the youth and persons with disabilities (PWD). Phase IV (2019-2024) of the EPWP proposes a strategic shift for the programme, emphasising social protection and capitalising on future economic opportunities, with maximum inclusion of vulnerable groups.


The inclusion of vulnerable groups – particularly the youth and PWD – is in the context of rising unemployment rates. Labour markets continue to be unfavourable for the youth and PWD, with a gap between the outputs of education and training systems and labour-market demand. The COVID-19 pandemic and the changing nature of work have worsened the participation of both groups in the labour market. The inclusion of vulnerable groups has been placed at the forefront in order to address inequalities inherent in the labour market. There are also changes in the world of work that demand changes in the way the economy functions. There is an increased focus on greening the economy as a way to address environmental degradation. As part of the green economy, new jobs are being created which require new skills. Currently, there is a worldwide green-skills gap; and in South Africa in particular, it must be bridged. Education and training institutions need to play a role in bridging this gap in the market. There is also growing digitisation of work, a trend that has accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. This change in the labour market has also prompted the creation of new jobs, with accompanying skills requirements. More and more jobs need the labour force to be equipped with digital tools so they can remain relevant and competitive in the labour market. There is thus a need for the government to invest in Information and Communications Technology (ICT) infrastructure to support the future of work. The EPWP can be an avenue through which the labour-intensive construction of such infrastructure could take place.


In an investigation into ways of increasing the number of vulnerable people participating in the EPWP in the digital and green economies, information was gathered through desktop research and semi-structured interviews with city officials, national departments, target group representative structures and other stakeholders. This was required to understand the key issues hampering the inclusion of vulnerable groups in EPWP projects, as well as to find ways to address key challenges. Another purpose was to find ways of including more youth and PWD in dynamic growth sectors of the future. The findings of this research are organised around the following essential dimensions, highlighting the key issues and avenues for intervention:

  • Digital economy: Across the various cities the number of projects is generally limited, with some still in the conceptual stage. There is a range of best-practice case studies and existing programmes in the South African context that offer avenues and opportunities for leveraging the EPWP for the maximum inclusion of vulnerable groups in the digital economy. Cities can leverage funding from the national government in order to design and implement innovative projects in the digital economy. There is already a foundation for the digital economy in most cities, through free Wi-Fi projects. This is a starting point for other relevant ICT infrastructure to be built to allow creative projects to be designed and implemented in the EPWP.
  • Green economy: The types of projects implemented in the cities fall within the broad categories of waste management, maintenance, food security, and sustainable farming and gardening, with project focus limited mainly to ‘manicure & pedicure’ interventions such as grass cutting and park maintenance. There are innovative projects by the government and the private sector that cities can leverage, replicate or even adapt to their respective contexts, and include EPWP participants to create work opportunities (WOs) and training.
  • Inclusion: There is a general perception that the youth are not interested in EPWP projects because they associate them with work that is not linked to future prospects or a meaningful career path. Persons with disabilities are not adequately accommodated in EPWP projects, in any phase from project design to recruitment processes. There is therefore a need for conceptualising projects in such a way that there is an understanding of the target groups’ personal and social environments. Planning for the inclusion of vulnerable groups must be undertaken upfront, relying on representatives and partners to understand key issues affecting target groups.
  • Training: Due to limited funding, the type of training offered through EPWP projects is mainly on-site, project specific and non-accredited, and thus does not offer prospects for future opportunities. There is a need for EPWP training to be linked to the demand in the market so that participants are equipped with the relevant skills to be competitive in the labour market. Higher education and training institutions, particularly TVETS, are key role players in designing training that balances the on-the-job skills and career pathing of EPWP participants.
  • Partnerships: There are rarely multi-stakeholder partnerships that include public, private and academic entities as well as NGOs; or partnerships that offer medium-term opportunities and pathways for EPWP participants. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are desirable for delivering sustainable projects that have an impact on participants; this partnership arrangement allows for the pooling of resources, to offer participants WOs and demand-driven training with future prospects.