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We can only fix youth unemployment if we correct our broken education system

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Prof Michael le Cordeur is Vice-Dean Teaching and Learning in the Faculty of Education at the University of Stellenbosch. He is deputy chair of the Stigting vir die bemagtiging deur Afrikaans.

Half of South African youths are jobless because schools and universities do not equip them with the appropriate knowledge and skills for the world of work.

It remains one of the daily pleasures my wife and I enjoy when we meet up with our former students and see how they have schooled themselves in some career or other and perform their jobs with passion and excellence.

Recently I went to buy flowers for my wife for her birthday. I gazed in wonderment as the pair of skilled hands converted the flowers into a delightful arrangement like an artist creating a painting on canvas. It was not long before the florist began to talk of the days when meneer en juffrou had taught her.

The other day, a former pupil walked into my house to repair the geyser. An hour later what had looked like an insurmountable problem was something of the past.

I remember the former student who came to my house during the drought in 2017 to install a system of water tanks so that every drop of rain could be redirected to my garden and toilets.

And I think to myself: where did these young people learn all these skills? Then I must admit to my shame that it was certainly not at the school where my wife and I used to teach them. No, we bored them with subjects about the Second World War and the reproduction of the earthworm. Although they did pass the examinations, we spectacularly failed the test of life.

Youth unemployment

For 12 years, learners struggle to complete their school careers, some under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, only to crash over the economic cliff and become part of the growing youth unemployment statistics — a direct result of an education system that does not prepare our youth for the world of work.

According to the statistics for the second quarter of 2023, 32.6% of South Africans are currently unemployed while the extended unemployment figure (which includes those who have stopped looking for work), stands at 42.1%. Among young people with matric, unemployment is currently 35.2%. The highest figure of 36.8% is found among black South Africans; among coloured people it is 21.9% and among Indians and other Asians it is 16.6%.

The lowest figure is among whites at 7.4%. 

In the age group 15 to 24 years, more than half of South Africans (60.7%) have no work. With 3.5 million young people in this age group who do not work, go to school or receive any training, warning lights are flickering: many of these youths get involved in gang violence, looting or youth crime while the number of teen pregnancies has risen by 91,000 in the past year.

Thus it is clear that youth unemployment is an enormous problem in South Africa. Nearly 29 million South Africans live on a monthly allowance or on the R350 Covid Social Relief of Distress grant on which 18 million South Africans depend.

Only 7.4 million of South Africa’s 61 million citizens pay tax. This means that 11% of our country’s population must support the other 89%. This is a non-sustainable funding model destined to collapse.

Ticking time bomb

In a previous article, I mentioned that the high unemployment rate among the youth and the accompanying poverty and lack of income is a “ticking time bomb”. This state of affairs prevents the youth from making an economic contribution to state coffers. As a result, many youths are indifferent to the state.

Through desperation, they turn to illegal activities such as the looting of July 2021. Their apathy towards national issues such as voting testify to youth who have nothing to live for.

Gradlinc

This feeling recurred when I was recently asked to be a panel member in a Gradlinc panel discussion about youth unemployment held in the Neelsie on the campus of Stellenbosch University. Gradlinc is an organisation which was founded by youth to facilitate a process to help them in their search for solutions. The purpose is to unlock the potential of Gen Z as unstoppable change champions in the youth battle against unemployment.

Young people, including Gen Z activists as well as Masilo Silokazi (chairperson of the student council of Stellenbosch University) and Maambele Khosa (one of Mail & Guardian’s Top 200 most influential youth) agreed that now is the time for cooperation between public and private sectors to nurture partnerships which can bridge the gap between educational institutions, business leaders and young work seekers.

For me, it was a watershed moment similar to the 1976 youth uprising when the youth took the initiative because adults could not escape their own preconceived ideas. The youth of 2023 may do things differently, but I notice the same urgency and determination to bring about positive change. The youth envisaged this to be done through our combined expertise and to utilise resources in their quest to find sustainable solutions.

Employability

An important question which must be asked is, what defines employability? Previously it was thought having a qualification would be sufficient. Today it is much more. It is accepted that employability includes the skills to identify and solve problems, your ability to adapt to people and to work in a group, and the knowledge and professional skills to be successful in the workplace. In short: employability is your whole attitude towards life and people.

Now that has been determined, the question is what role the school can play in making young people more employable. The school should certainly play a role in this. It starts with the correct choice of subjects.

Before a learner chooses a subject, the question must be asked how this will put bread on the table. Therefore, it is important to first have a conversation with the parents or someone trustworthy like a teacher.

In hindsight, it was a huge mistake when Kader Asmal abolished a subject like Career Guidance shortly after 1994. The destructive effect it had on young people and their future is immeasurable since most parents do not have the necessary knowledge.

Skills development

Much is made of the fact that the government invests the lion’s share of its budget in education and the youth. Perhaps we should start asking what dividends this investment has produced.

From where I sit, I see little if any. I see learners who are so bored with a curriculum which means nothing to them, so that the dropout rate increases every year. It also does not put bread on the table. This horrible waste of money must stop.

Time upon time I and others have pointed out that the current Curriculum, Assessment and Policy Statement (Caps) places too much emphasis on assessment (basically this comes down to coaching for exams). It is also too prescriptive. Teachers have no room to use their own judgement and initiative to make their lessons interesting and relevant within the context of the child’s needs and his or her future.

We need a curriculum which develops skills for the 21st century. I call it Skills-based Education (SBE) which must not be confused with OBE. Our children must be schooled in the skills they will need for the world of work. Currently, we do not teach the child of a fisherman how to start a fish factory; and we do not train the child of a wine farm labourer to become a winemaker.

Growing economy

Youth unemployment and the utilisation of the employability of South Africa’s youth is a critical development challenge for the country. The task of empowering young people must be based on a growing and inclusive economy. Therefore, it is important that the social partners all pursue the same goal: the growth of our economy.

Taking subjects which prepare the youth for work is part of that goal. The saying goes that “a country which does not appreciate its youth, does not deserve a future”. Everyone involved in education must realise that the task of tuition, education and empowerment is never complete. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Robert Pegg says:

    Don’t we have Ministers of basic and higher education ? Are they asleep at the wheel, or just couldn’t care less as long as they get their huge salaries every month. The mind boggles that they can’t see the wood for the trees.

  • Katharine Ambrose says:

    The education our children get seems to be a great millstone round their necks. Well we know the prescription for those who place the millstone. Neither of those ministers has been effective for years. Time to let them go.

  • Mark K says:

    The Association of Language Teachers of Europe (ALTE) produced a document about 20 years ago – the “Can-do” Statements. These included can-do statements for work at various levels of language proficiency. They describe specifically what a student can do in a work context using what they have learned. I think repurposing these language proficiency statements for more broad-based Skills-based Education is entirely feasible. It would take someone with significant experience, working alone, a few weeks to do this… because it’s not necessary to reinvent the wheel.

    The other advantage is that assessment is easy – each can-do statement can be assessed with “yes” or “no.” They can or they can’t do x work function. A list of these would be very helpful in guiding employers in making hiring decisions.

    All this rests on getting the PIRLS humiliation fixed, of course. Without basic literacy, it would be pointless.

  • Lil Mars says:

    Bring back the trade schools and teachers colleges. It’s a sad sad situation.

  • Learning the correct skill can change your life completely. Learning how to turn that skill into a business can change someone else’s life completely.

  • debminnaar says:

    This is a great summary of where we are with a great proposal of where to head (SBE) but what options are there to make changes? Would it be possible for our Teachers Unions to collaborate to demand change in How we Teach (instead of just how much teachers get paid)?

  • Trenton Carr says:

    Can’t fix education if the cultures are broken.

  • Yes, indeed: Education needs to be relevant and purposeful. RSA’s curriculum for Life Skills was a huge step in that direction. But I have a notion that with career skills it is where the “world of work” can come in: school leavers could enter an (obligatory?) internship programme for at leat a year, driven by the WoW to hone their career skills, if they do not opt for further eduation (where this is common practice).

  • Anthony Sturges says:

    Unfortunately, when 80% of children can’t read for meaning, this is the result!

  • Linda Yates says:

    Excellent article.

  • Fully agree however we need to take this one step further and not only look at the level of unemployment.

    The question is often asked or rather statistics are given on transformation at middle and top management in the South African Economy showing little or no progress.

    The article published helps in answering this. Politicians like to use the statistical data for political gain rather than looking at the root of the problem which has nothing to do with specific groups but rather the result of poor education inexperience and a shortage of skills, as highlighted in this article, and then not able to cope within a challenging economic environment.

    The education system lacks the supply of well equipped individuals able to attend tertiary institutions to further equip themselves to become active members in a growing economy.

    Further to this there is no consultation/long term planning between the private sector, government and tertiary institutions on the numbers and types of skills/professions needed to serve the economy. Thousands of graduates are finishing at tertiary institutions in professions where there is already an over supply?

  • kirenvt says:

    I think the premise is partially true. While I agree that many students are ill-prepared for the world of work, I also believe that the way the economy is managed does not provide an abundance of new job opportunities.
    Part of the problem is that the higher education landscape has been plagued by mission drift. Universities and colleges that ought to have done job training with industry-experienced academics are now focused on a paper chase.
    It’s a very complex challenge and, I also think, education is about the future challenges. Narrow job / trade training ought to be done as a partnership between industry and educational institutions. Some present projects are quite effective.

  • If there is a problem faced by a person and that person is not knowing the solution for the problem, he/she will stay with the problem up until that person apply the correct solution for the problem and then the problem is then removed. People with the solution for this will remain silent because the problem does not belong to them. The solution can be multi-facet depending on where a person is in life because we have all different position to start our progress. We need to learn financial discipline and value for money that will make us go through hard time at an early stage but it will make us rest at the later stage. We should learn knowledge at school and learn how to live in life when we get older. When we prioritize our knowledge of creating business and implement our values we can start to move towards our destiny. Young people should be taught this way of life not institutions because they do not have that vision

  • With comments and thinking like this, it is no wonder everything is a MESS.

    It is not the responsibility of education to prepare individuals for.life.

    It is the responsibility of society, family and institutional structures to do so.

    WHAT IS SO DIFFICULT TO UNDERSTAND ABOUT THAT?

    The biggest obstacles in employ is attitude; and not entitlement.

    Understanding of your ‘place’ in society, hierarchy, AS YOU QUALIFY AND MOVE UP.

    Education strengthens and teaches thought process; Life develops application: from sports, team players, to serving in organisation’s.

    Getting to understand HOW business works, your SUBMISSIVE servant-hearted role, learning the game, soft skills and practical skills; and excelling, promotion through being a hard work, agreeable attitude and thus the MAKING of a VALUABLE employee; even if from sweeper, to director – but GET your foot in the door, regardles, and LEARN the soft skills, even if totally unskilled. Not putting the cart before the horse.

    There is a reason why apprenticeships and army ‘ break you down first, IN ORDER to build you up – as a safe, conducive and thus valuable team player!

    To say the ‘old education system’ no longer applies? Haibo.

    It is true that it is easier to identify and learn the most valuable soft life skills today; but to say education should provide this?

    This is what happens when people do not understand the ONE book, printed in 1611, love it or hate, that MADE the UK, and subsequently the USA the powerhouses of freedom, liberty and opportunity – bringingntheir WHOLW nations together in their hearts like never before; like no other countries and nations ever before.

    Simple.

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