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Beyond unemployment — the hidden crisis of youth underemployment in South Africa


Sabelo Mpisi is a Visiting Research Fellow in the Youth African Research Fellowship (YARF) at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), located within the Inclusive Economic Development unit (IED). He has a Master’s degree in Social Anthropology from the University of Cape Town (UCT).

Many young South Africans with post-matric qualifications are struggling to find meaningful employment and thus find themselves in endless cycles of underemployment.

Since last year, I have been working as a post-masters Visiting Young African Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) in Cape Town as part of a larger project titled “The Imprint of Education” (TIE).

The project aims to examine youth livelihoods against the paradigm of post-university transitions in the African job market, which is characterised by structural barriers that make it difficult for young people to find fulfilling work.

During this project, my colleagues and I, representing southern, East and West Africa, have been tasked with reviewing relevant literature, policies and interventions from African governments aimed at facilitating successful post-university transitions (not barring post-matric transitions), and ensuring that young people have access to employment opportunities in the fields for which they have qualified/trained, or in any fields.  

In our work, we have been confronted with the persistent challenge of youth unemployment rates in South Africa, which were exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. While the government reports on these rates regularly, often stating that the number of unemployed people rose to seven million between 2020 and 2022, with the highest percentage among the young, it seems to offer only narrow insight into the root causes.

Pandemic impact

The pandemic led to an increase in unemployment rates due to companies and employers having to retrench workers. Working hours were reduced and contact was limited, which resulted in a decrease in productivity. The pandemic changed our understanding of work and what it entails, leading to the closure of some companies that were unable to adapt.

The government-sanctioned lockdowns, particularly Level 5, also limited human movement, allowing only select companies and organisations to continue operating as they were deemed “essential”.  

The youth unemployment reports in South Africa fail to capture the complexity of the issue. They overlook the social and class markers at play, such as race, gender, the rural-urban divide, and the educated versus uneducated divide, to name a few.

While to an extent they allude to how the rates are racialised due to the country’s racialised history and its uneven distribution of resources, they fail to recognise youth underemployment, which affects many young people in the country, as is the premise of this piece.

This holds true with the government’s fixation on either strengthening the incompetent and unsound existing youth-centric policies that the majority of the country’s youth neither know about nor have access to or constructing new interventions altogether, aimed at responding both to the pandemic and future youth unemployment rates. 

Youth underemployment occurs in three ways.

First, when the youth settle for low-paying, uncertain jobs for which they are overqualified due to compelling interpersonal circumstances. Their skills, expertise, and experience are either unrecognised or underutilised by employers.

Second, when, due to compelling interpersonal circumstances, they opt for jobs for which they qualify but find their talents over-utilised without receiving remuneration that would match their labour demands, responsibilities, and expertise.

Third, when they settle for uncertain, low-paying jobs for which they are underqualified due to a variety of interpersonal circumstances. This type of underemployment exposes them to exploitation, despite being open to learning new skills, expertise, and experiences, which neither equip nor prepare them for their next dream job that aligns with their qualifications.

This often occurs when labour markets have a scarcity of qualified prospective employees. This results in employers hiring whoever they can to fill the gap and meet their targets and objectives.

The job opportunities advertised in this context are typically referred to as “entry jobs”, and employers often promise to provide relevant training.  

Presidential Youth Employment Initiative

To revert to the new interventions by which the government has aimed to curb the daunting youth unemployment rates and increase and strengthen livelihood opportunities for young people through structural reform and job creation, during and after the pandemic, I would like to briefly consider the Presidential Youth Employment Initiative (PYEI), launched by President Cyril Ramaphosa largely as part of the country’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan (ERRP).

As launched in December 2020, the initiative is underpinned by three juxtaposed interventions: the Presidential Employment Stimulus (PES), Operation Vulindlela, and the Educator Assistant Initiative (EAI).

The PES, to date and counting, sees the government boasting that it is the largest youth employment programme in the country’s history, as it gave input vouchers to almost a quarter of a million subsistence farmers; gave support to almost 100,000 early childhood development practitioners to help them sustain their centres; supported almost 40,000 young people within the creative sector who wanted to produce films, animations, and literature in indigenous languages; and has supported close to 30 universities to place graduates in work that is in line with their relevant qualifications.

Operation Vulindlela was created with the aim of addressing structural barriers that hinder businesses in their strides from creating employment opportunities for young people. In addition, it also aimed to fast-track the structural reforms and economic recovery through modernising and changing the existing models of the network industries, with digital communications, transportation, electricity, and water included.

The EAI has seemingly been the most effective since the government has been raving about its success in reducing youth unemployment and creating employment opportunities for almost a million young people across the nine provinces.

Cycle of underemployment 

However, it is my view that its placement of unemployed young South Africans between the ages of 18-34, who had a matric qualification and were not studying for a five-month contract in two categories of vacancies, may not be the solution to youth unemployment but could, in fact, be pushing them into endless cycles of underemployment, as revisited shortly.  

The first vacancy category is for Education Assistants, who are responsible for providing after-class, during-class, and administrative support to teachers. They also help pupils catch up on lessons, grapple with misunderstood content, and identify limitations in classroom teaching methods.

Some Education Assistants also provide digital support, troubleshooting or uploading curriculum and content onto the devices of teachers and learners alike. Others are employed as Reading Champions, encouraging a culture of reading among learners in the early grades of primary school.

The second vacancy is General School Assistants, which houses a variety of vacancies including some that do not require a matric qualification, although they stress other requirements. For instance, Child and Youth Care Workers provide psychosocial support to learners. Handypersons provide maintenance of school infrastructure. Sports and Enrichment Assistants help schools facilitate cultural and sports activities within and outside the confines of the premises. 

One of the implications of the initiative is that it allows “anyone” with a matric qualification to apply, regardless of their other qualifications. This means that even if a person has an undergraduate or postgraduate degree from a university or a Teaching and Vocational Education and Training college (Tvet), it does not necessarily increase their chances of being selected.

This has led some of the young people to become underemployed, as they are not able to make use of their skills and expertise in their chosen fields for which they have qualifications.

For example, my brother Sanele graduated from the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Genetics and Microbiology before the pandemic. Despite his qualifications, he struggled to find a relevant job that would allow him to apply his skills and expertise. He applied for the Education Assistant position because he needed a source of income. However, the job did not provide him with the skills and experience he needed to pursue a career in his field. 

Similarly, my partner Makhosi holds a Bachelor of Arts Honours Degree in Archaeology from the University of Cape Town (UCT). After losing her job as a visa application officer, she applied for the Education Assistants position despite having no relevant experience. She did so out of necessity, as she needed a source of income to support herself, our two children, and her family. While the initiative provided her with a job, it did not offer her the opportunity to apply her skills and knowledge in her chosen field. 

These examples highlight the difficulties faced by many young South Africans who are struggling to find meaningful employment and thus find themselves in endless cycles of underemployment.

The government needs to implement post-matric and post-university policies and programmes that ensure a smooth transition for young people into the world of work. This would involve working closely with universities and Tvet colleges to develop (or restructure the already existing) courses and curriculums that emphasise work readiness and practical skills.

It would also involve working closely with both the public and private sectors. This would be done to provide job shadowing, mentoring programmes, as well as employment exhibitions, and the matching of qualifications to relevant job opportunities.

This will ensure that young people are taught the relevant practical skills and expertise that could increase their employability. Without such initiatives, young South Africans will not only continue to be underemployed, their potential untapped, and their qualifications useless, but they will also continue to dabble in both unemployment and underemployment, where they escape the one reality for a short while, only to land back in the other due to incompetent government policies and interventions that appear to be implemented without consulting them. DM


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