South Africa’s higher education sector has witnessed significant growth in recent years, providing increased access to tertiary education. The sector has long been considered a vital pathway to social and economic mobility for its citizens. However, despite the significant strides made in expanding access to tertiary education, the issue of graduate unemployment continues to persist.
The Persistence of Graduate Unemployment
In recent years, South Africa has witnessed a concerning trend: a growing number of graduates struggling to find suitable employment opportunities upon completing their studies. According to recent statistics, the graduate unemployment rate in South Africa remains alarmingly high. The Quarterly Labour Force Survey conducted by Statistics South Africa revealed that in the first quarter of 2023, the unemployment rate among university graduates aged 15-34 stood at a staggering 33.6%. This indicates that approximately one in three university graduates in this age group is unable to secure employment. This phenomenon can be attributed to various factors, including a mismatch between the skills acquired through education and those demanded by the labour market, limited work experience, and a sluggish economy with insufficient job creation.
Skill Mismatch and Relevance
One of the key factors contributing to graduate unemployment is the disconnect between the skills developed during higher education and the skills required by industries. South Africa’s economy is rapidly evolving, and industries are demanding highly specialized skills and knowledge. Unfortunately, some universities’ curricula and academic programs have not kept pace with these changing demands, resulting in a mismatch between graduates’ qualifications and industry needs. According to a study by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), approximately 31% of employers in South Africa reported a lack of skills among graduates as a critical reason for not hiring them.
Furthermore, data from the Department of Higher Education and Training highlights the prevalence of skill mismatch among graduates. In a survey conducted in 2022, around 38% of employed graduates stated that their jobs did not require the qualifications they attained (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2022). due to mismatches between labour market demands and educational qualifications, graduates have difficulty finding employment after graduation.
In fact, South Africa is producing graduates faster than the economy can employ them. Closing the demand-supply gap will have a direct impact on reducing the unemployment of a very skilled labour force. Assuming skills are not exported, it will contribute to a skilled workforce which can be absorbed into the national system of innovation. This emphasizes the urgent need for closer alignment between educational curricula and industry requirements to ensure graduates possess the relevant skills for the job market. To address this issue, higher education institutions must proactively engage with industry stakeholders to identify emerging skill requirements and incorporate them into the curriculum. By fostering partnerships and regularly reviewing and updating program offerings, universities can ensure that graduates possess the relevant skills and knowledge sought by employers.
Limited Work Experience and Internship Opportunities
Another challenge facing graduates is the lack of practical work experience. Many employers require candidates to have relevant experience, making it difficult for fresh graduates to secure employment. Statistics indicate that only about 8% of university graduates in South Africa had participated in internships or work-integrated learning programs during their studies (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2022).
The higher education sector acknowledges this issue and has taken steps to address it. Collaborations with industries to offer internships, work-integrated learning programs, and cooperative education initiatives are being actively promoted to bridge the gap between academia and industry. These initiatives provide students with valuable exposure to real-world work environments, allowing them to develop industry-specific skills, enhance their employability, and build networks. Additionally, higher education institutions should encourage students to pursue part-time employment or volunteer opportunities during their studies to gain practical experience and strengthen their resumes.
The lack of internship opportunities is a key concern that needs to be addressed by both higher education institutions and industries. Encouragingly, recent data shows that the number of universities offering internships and cooperative education programs has increased by 10% over the past three years (Department of Higher Education and Training, 2022). However, further efforts are required to expand these opportunities and ensure widespread access for all students.
Entrepreneurship and Self-Employment
In light of limited formal employment opportunities, entrepreneurship and self-employment have gained significance among graduates. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) reported that South Africa has seen a rise in entrepreneurial activities, with the percentage of adults engaged in early-stage entrepreneurship reaching 13.1% in 2021 (GEM, 2021). Furthermore, data from the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) indicates that self-employment among university graduates has increased by approximately 25% over the past five years (SEDA, 2022). This showcases the entrepreneurial potential and resilience of graduates in South Africa as they seek alternative pathways to create their own employment opportunities.
Recognizing this potential, higher education institutions are increasingly emphasizing entrepreneurship education and support services, empowering graduates to create their own opportunities and contribute to economic growth through innovation and business ventures. By incorporating entrepreneurship courses into the curriculum, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset, and providing mentorship and incubation support, universities can equip graduates with the skills and knowledge necessary to start their own businesses. Furthermore, collaboration with local entrepreneurial ecosystems, such as incubators, accelerators, and funding organizations, can provide aspiring entrepreneurs with the resources and guidance needed to succeed.
Government and Stakeholder Collaboration
Addressing graduate unemployment requires collaborative efforts from various stakeholders. The South African government has recognized the urgency of this issue and has initiated programs such as the National Development Plan and the Youth Employment Service. These initiatives aim to promote job creation, enhance skills development, and provide support for entrepreneurship. In an effort to combat unemployment and improve the employability of the workforce, the South African government has been actively engaging in collaborative endeavours with various stakeholders. These partnerships, which involve higher education institutions, industries, and professional bodies, aim to align curricula with industry requirements, provide mentorship and internship opportunities, and cultivate an environment conducive to developing employability skills. By pooling their resources and expertise, these stakeholders are making significant strides towards enhancing graduate employability and reducing unemployment rates.
One of the notable initiatives undertaken by the South African government is the National Development Plan (NDP), which was launched in 2012. The plan presents a long-term vision for the country’s socio-economic development and includes specific targets and strategies to address unemployment. Key focus areas of the NDP include enhancing education and skills development, promoting investment, and fostering entrepreneurship. Through this comprehensive plan, the government aims to lay the foundation for sustainable economic growth and job creation. Another notable collaboration is the Youth Employment Service (YES), a joint effort between the government and the private sector. YES aims to provide one-year work experience opportunities to young individuals aged between 18 and 35. By partnering with businesses, government entities, and civil society organizations, YES aims to bridge the gap between education and employment and generate job opportunities for the youth.
To address skills shortages in various sectors of the economy, the South African government has established Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). These industry-specific bodies collaborate with employers, trade unions, and educational institutions to identify sector-specific skills needs, develop relevant training programs, and provide funding for skills development initiatives. The aim is to equip individuals with the necessary skills demanded by the job market and ensure a competent workforce. Recognizing the significance of collaboration with higher education institutions, the government has encouraged partnerships between universities and industries. These collaborations facilitate the alignment of curricula with industry requirements, offer internship and work-integrated learning opportunities, and promote entrepreneurship education. By leveraging the expertise and resources of both academia and the private sector, these partnerships aim to equip graduates with the practical skills and experience needed for successful entry into the job market.
Supporting small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) has been a top priority for the South African government. Initiatives such as the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA) have been established to provide support to entrepreneurs through business development services, mentorship programs, and access to finance. Additionally, the government has implemented policies to simplify regulations and promote the growth of SMEs, as they are recognized as vital contributors to job creation. Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) have also played a pivotal role in addressing unemployment in South Africa. By bringing together government entities, businesses, and civil society organizations, PPPs have facilitated the development and implementation of initiatives focused on job creation, skills development, and entrepreneurship. These partnerships harness both sectors’ combined expertise, resources, and networks to achieve a collective impact in reducing unemployment.
The articulation of graduate unemployment in South Africa remains a work in progress within the higher education sector. While significant strides have been made through collaborative efforts between the government, industries, and professional bodies, much must be done to bridge the gap between education and employment for graduates. Ongoing commitment and innovation are needed to enhance graduate employability further and reduce unemployment rates. With sustained efforts and continued collaboration, South Africa will make significant progress in creating a more favorable environment for graduates to enter the job market successfully and contribute to the nation’s socio-economic development.
Dr. Norah Hashim Msuya is an academician and writes in her personal capacity.