Have degree, will work: Unemployed graduate crisis takes its toll on SA’s youth

Have degree, will work: Unemployed graduate crisis takes its toll on SA’s youth
Unemployed graduates from KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng sing as they gather at Burgers Park before marching to the Union Buildings on 6 November 2018 in Pretoria, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Phill Magakoe)

Stats SA has released the results of its Quarterly Employment Survey, showing that formal employment rose by 48,000 jobs in the fourth quarter to nearly 10 million, but year on year, unemployment has grown. Growth is mainly seen in part-time jobs. It’s young people who are suffering the most.

With a resigned tone in her voice, Dr Athinangamso Esther Nkopo, who has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Cape Town (UCT), tells me her story. 

“I’ve applied for so many jobs and I don’t even get as much as a ‘we regret to inform you’ response.” 

Nkopo has been applying for full-time teaching jobs since July 2016 but cannot even find part-time employment at the university’s night schools doing work she is qualified to do with her master’s in international relations. 

When she did manage to get a part-time job as a teaching assistant at UCT on a six month renewable contract, her R14,000 per month salary was slashed to R8,000 due to budget cuts from funders. 

She feels her involvement in student movements such as #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall has compromised her employability, in spite of the fact that the country is looking for young black talent to join the workforce in academia.

Qhama Ntloko* is an environmental health practitioner with a bachelor’s degree in environmental health from the University of Johannesburg. He has applied for 40 jobs in government and is also growing tired of not even receiving so much as courtesy rejection mails.  

Ntloko asked for his real name to be withheld as he did not want to compromise any prospects of being employed. 

“It is like being swallowed into a pit,” Ntloko says. He has struggled to find work since graduating in 2021 and finishing his community service in 2022 in the Pixley ka Seme district in the Northern Cape.  

As an environmental health practitioner, he is qualified to do preventative healthcare work in any municipality. His expectation after completing his community service was that he would easily find permanent work, but that has not been the case. 

Ntloko has spent more than R5,000 over a period of three months in applying for government jobs. Government has been slow to introduce technology in application processes, and so his money has mostly gone on courier and printing costs.

Ntloko was recently offered an internship for R7,000 a month, which is inadequate to survive on in today’s expensive world. 

Ntloko and Nkopo’s stories fit into the larger picture in which many South African graduates are unlikely to find jobs, but even those who do so, tend to find themselves under-employed. This means that graduates are paid below the stipulated minimum wage.  

In 2021, it was reported that one-third of employed graduates in journalism, public relations, graphic design and creative and visual communication, including radio and television production and broadcasting, earn less than R10,000 a month. 

According to Stats SA, 43.4% of people between the ages of 15 and 34 are unemployed. This is a serious cause for concern given that this age range makes up more than half of the country’s employable workforce.

According to Professor Ahmed Bawa, the former CEO of Universities South Africa (USAf), about 220,000 graduates emerge from the public higher education sector each year, and around 10,000 from the private education sector. 

Bawa says the last big study done on graduate unemployment was published in 2013 by the University of Stellenbosch’s Research on Socioeconomic Policy unit, which found that graduate unemployment was at less than 6% at the time. That was the last major study of its kind.

Of the almost 14 million applications for the social relief of distress grant by the end of January this year, 716,000 were made by tertiary graduates. This is according to data from Sassa and the Department of Social Development. 

Education and a mismatch of skills

Former president Nelson Mandela is often quoted as saying, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.” Implicit here is that educated people get good jobs and go on to do great things, but this does not ask the question: what kind of education? 

While SA has a leading position in academia in Africa, with 26 public universities and 130 registered private higher education providers, its graduates struggle to find employment. Several South African universities, according to Edurank which ranks over 1,300 universities, feature in the top percentiles. These include: University of Cape Town, Wits University, University of Pretoria, Stellenbosch University and University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Graduate unemployment however is not a uniquely South African problem, but rather, as Professor Eddie Webster from Wits University’s Southern Centre for Inequality Studies, and Sam Morotoba, Deputy Director General of  Public Employment Services at the Department of Labour, argue, it is a problem haunting the Global South.

Webster says there is a “mismatch” of skills in the labour market, in that there are graduates coming out of universities without skills that fit the needs of the market. He says more technical skills are needed. 

Part of the colonial legacy, he says, is that a university education is seen as superior to a Technikon education. 

In his forthcoming book, “Recasting Workers’ Power: Work and Inequality in the Shadow of the Digital Age”, Webster says: “Instead of assuming that every worker will get a full-time job with benefits, established labour needs to acknowledge that the world of work has irrevocably changed, and that adopting an experimental approach to representation and bargaining is the only way it can secure a future.” 

For him, the world has changed due to technology, and a shift in ideology with the rise of neoliberalism emphasising entrepreneurship and individual effort rather than the old model of the state creating enterprises and organisations in where people have permanent jobs. There has been a shift towards greater flexibility in the labour market, he says. 

His view is supported by the fact that part-time employment rose by 42,000 – or 4% – in the fourth quarter of 2022. However, this does not mean that the state’s role in providing jobs has become obsolete. The government and the private sector have joined forces to some extent, if one considers the Youth Employment Service (YES) programme which started in 2015 but only really kicked off in 2019.

Private sector partnerships

Ravi Naidoo, the head of YES, says the non-profit was set up as a partnership organisation fully funded by the private sector which systematically places “youth from the poorest households into the economy and into future-facing jobs”. 

Each youth is placed in a company for a year, and they come out with some work experience and social networks to better position them to make their “long term transition into the labour market much more viable”. 

All youths placed by the programme are paid salaries by the sponsoring corporate, and cannot be lower than the national minimum wage (NMW), says Naidoo.  

As these are first-time jobs for youth, the majority get paid at or just above the NMW, though the highest paid individuals in its current programme are making up to R50,000 a month. Nine percent of 103,500 youths placed by YES to date are graduates holding bachelor’s degrees.

Government’s view

Deputy President Paul Mashatile spoke last week at a Buy Local Summit where he disclosed that SA would host an investment conference this year.

He said government had to reduce red tape in order to increase growth and job creation.  The ANC government has been saying this for more than a decade. Mashatile said that through manufacturing, the SA economy could create around 8% more jobs. He said it was critical that public-private partnerships were established to solve the economic crisis, and he thanked business for the role it already plays, reiterating that the energy crisis is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to economic growth.

Department of Labour responds

The Labour Department’s Sam Morotoba says that every government department has an internship, apprenticeship or leadership programme, and that graduates should investigate these. 

He says the private sector also has internship programmes and that the government provides tax incentives for any employer who takes on a young person for an internship or apprenticeship. 

Morotoba adds that there are also grants offered through the Sector Education and Training Authorities for any employer, be it in the private or public sector, that offers  internships, apprenticeships or learnerships. 

There are also other programmes from government (see advice box below) under the Presidential Youth Employment Intervention (PYEI), which brings together the strengths of numerous government institutions and social partners to deliver opportunities for young people. A central component of PYEI is the establishment of a National Pathway Management Network that guides young people towards opportunities. 

In 2022, Morotoba says, government funded programmes to the tune of R11.7-billion to expose graduates to various work opportunities. 

Despite the range of opportunities for internships, learnerships and apprenticeships, the problem is that these are short-term and youths continue to struggle to find stable work after coming out of such programmes. DM

Alexandra Willis is an independent research consultant based in Johannesburg.

*Real name withheld

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Putting your hope of a career on the anc government seems a bit short sighted.

  • Louis Eksteen says:

    This is an older post, but I must disagree with a lot of what is implied here – I have advertised extensively for an IT-intern, and had numerous application, for which I responded to in person within 24 hours. I have a 1st step test, as a filter, setting up a website using a googled step-by-step instruction (they just have to google this themselves).
    Completing this task will guarantee them an interview
    Out of 30 applications, I did not have a single taker, although all indicated in their CV and cover letter that they are capable of doing this…
    I think it is not only a mismatch, but actually our Tertiary Institutions that are failing our children! They leave with a piece of paper and not a skill set….
    Even my own son, who did a 3-year IT degree, battled to do this task without assistance. And it literally entails going to google, asking the question, and following the tutorial. Takes me 30 minutes, took him 2 days…
    We need to look at our Educational Institutions – they have gone from learning spaces, to profit centres, with little or no regard for the outcomes…

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