Maryke Steynvaart

Unemployment is a stark reality in South Africa, which can affect anyone, regardless of economic and social differences. Various socio-economic factors play a role in the high rates of unemployment in South Africa. Graduates are also affected by unemployment, which remains a reality for every student once they graduate and enter the job market. South Africa’s population is estimated to be 58.78 million and around 17.84 million individuals are between the age of 18 and 34.

According to the 2019 Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS), 39.5% of the individuals aged between 18 and 34 are unemployed whereas the national unemployment rate is currently 29.1%. According to the 2019 QLFS, the number of employed individuals is 16.3 million and the number of those unemployed increased to 6.2 million. The true unemployment rate is much higher than these figures because they do not factor in those individuals who stopped searching for work. In addition, these surveys do not reflect the true numbers but are only statistics extrapolated from sample studies of the population.

It is estimated that 10.3 million youth between the age of 15 and 24 of which 6.6 million individuals are not economically active. Thus, there is an estimated 3.6 million youth that is employed and 2.4 million youths who are actively seeking employment. According to Statistics South Africa, about 13% of youth between the age of 20 and 34 are graduates. Less than 20% of people over the age of 30 are unemployed in South Africa compared to more than 45% for people younger than 30.

The unemployment rate for graduates according to the 2019 QLFS is about 2.1%. That percentage reflects unemployment across all ages and not those of recent graduates, though graduate unemployment is much lower compared to 6.9% of students with other tertiary qualifications, 34.5% for matriculants and 55.9% for individuals with less than matric.

South Africa’s high unemployment rate is partially a result of weak economic growth and, after the world economic crash of 2008, the unemployment rates skyrocketed. Before 2008, the GDP growth rate was 4.4% but dropped on average to 1.8% after 2008 and is projected to be 0.5% in 2020. Thus, less jobs are being created to fully absorb the South African labour force.

At the same time, the amount of graduates being produced is rising. The Higher Education Management Information System determined that South African Universities produced about 190 000 new graduates per year. Based on the 2019 QLFS the formal market only absorbs an estimated 41 000 graduates each year.

Yet, graduate unemployment cannot solely be blamed on the economy. Another factor involves the mismatch between what and how students are taught at tertiary institutions compared to the practical skills and knowledge that employers want. This issue needs to be addressed at an institutional level.

Despite the difficulties students face, students at the University of Pretoria tend to be quickly absorbed into the job market. The University of Pretoria is ranked as part of the top one hundred universities in the world for Graduate Employability, based on the QS Employability Survey. ‘UP’s ranking reflects the emphasis placed by the University on enhancing employability.’ says UP Vice-Principal for Institutional Planning, Prof Anton Ströh. Several socio-economic factors also play a role in graduate unemployment. More affluent students find it easier to find a job because they can afford assets such as a car. More and more employers require that you have your own transport, which puts poorer students at an economic disadvantage. First-generation students that come from previously disadvantaged families do not have the same access to resources such as students whose parents have studied before.

One way that this benefits legacy students are their social network, which tends to be full of doctors, lawyers, psychologists and other professionals. This enables them to easily secure an internship or an opportunity to shadow them as a way to acquire experience compared to a student without such social contacts.

Being unemployed is not entirely due to external factors. Students have to actively pursue work-experience and explore as many avenues of opportunity as possible. Many graduates expect to instantly walk into a well-paying job post-graduation, but this is not the reality. Cathy Sims, the Executive Director at the South African Graduate Employers Association NPC (SAGEA), told PDBY that “employers are looking for graduates who are critical thinkers who demonstrate creativity, can communicate effectively and collaborate on delivery of the challenges that face organisations.”

Dr Michael Pepper advises, in a presentation named “How do I enter the job market after graduation?” presented on 15 February 2018, the following: “Students need to realise that they have to start from the bottom and work themselves up and that hard work and talent are noticed quickly”. He further advises that “You need work experience, no matter how menial and low-paying the job is initially. In the short term, young people do not see the benefit of working hard for so little reward.” He concludes that students “do not see the necessity of work experience in creating long-term success. As a result, they tend to resign too soon to look for something “better.”

Unemployment is a daunting prospect and in order to maximise the chances of finding secure employment, students are encouraged to build entry-level job experience and actively pursue all avenues of opportunity.


Image: Marten Newhall on

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