Young, jobless and desperate – Degrees with no guarantees

University degrees or diplomas no longer hold the promise of jobs for young South Africans as hundreds of thousands of them battle to find work.

Labour market analyst Loane Sharp says that about 600 000 university graduates are languishing at home, unable to put into practice what they have learned.

A growing army of unemployed graduates are now forced to either rely on their families to support them or find jobs as unskilled workers, such as waiters, clerks and office assistants.

University qualifications, Sharp says, are not the only qualities employers look for when recruiting.

Sharp’s advice to young people is to choose what they want to study carefully before going to university and enrolling for a course that is not in demand.

Not all graduates are equal in the fierce battle for jobs.

“There are nearly 600 000 unemployed graduates in South Africa. The key issue is whether the degree is relevant to employers or to starting your own business,” Sharp says.

The massive figure was revealed in employment consultancy Adcorp’s December Employment Index, which showed that South Africa’s tertiary institutions are failing to produce enough graduates in business-related fields, despite the demand for such skills.

“The result is that tens of thousands of people with suitable capabilities . . . are forced to enter second-choice careers earning less than their aptitude and qualifications justify,” says Sharp.

Professionals such as accountants, lawyers, medical doctors and engineers enjoy the lowest unemployment rates, at 0.4%.

Holders of degrees including BCom (commerce), BSc (science) and BCompt (accounting science) also have a very low unemployment rate, at 3.1%.

“The most sought-after skills are finance, accounting, management, law, and medicine,” says Sharp.

“In particular, management skills account for nearly half of the 829 000 vacancies in corporate South Africa.”

While a university graduate is generally more employable than those without degrees, this largely depends on the courses he or she has studied.

Graduates with degrees in the arts – including music and social sciences – are far more likely to battle to find jobs.

A lack of work experience, however, is another significant drawback.

Sharp says most graduates in search of jobs either lack work experience, practical “on-the-job knowledge”, and the supervisory skills they need – or their degrees are irrelevant to the job market.

His advice for would-be graduates is to start gaining work experience while still at university.

“Graduates must choose the right subjects, get the highest grades possible, specialise in sought-after honours programmes such as economics, finance, statistics, accounting, law, mathematics and quantitative methods, and do lots of holiday work on a voluntary basis,” says Sharp, adding that this would give them the edge over their classmates.

The Adcorp Employment Index says professional bodies also restrict entry into certain professions, making it more difficult for graduates to find work.

“For example, the General Council of the Bar, the law societies, the Health Professions Council, the Institute of Chartered Accountants and other bodies set their own criteria – typically an exam, but often other criteria such as a low-paid articleship or internship as well – as a prerequisite for entry into the professions,” the report says.

“By contrast, fields such as physics, finance, engineering, economics and management do not have professional bodies. Professional bodies restrict entry, ostensibly to maintain standards, but in fact they are a thinly-veiled guise to maintain their respective professional monopolies.”

The South African Graduates Development Association (Sagda) blames a number of factors for the country’s growing graduate unemployment crisis. One of them is successfully matching those with skills to the jobs which require them.

Sagda chief executive Thamsanqa Maqubela said among the country’s 600 000 unemployed graduates were qualified accountants, despite the fact that this is one of the country’s scarcest skills.

Engineers, he says, make up the largest number of qualified graduates on their database with more than 150 of them looking for work. He says that there are even more jobless engineers out there.

Sagda was recently appointed by the Department of Trade and Industry to implement and monitor its Unemployed Graduate Work Experience Placement Programme, which aims to make graduates more employable by placing them in internship programmes.

Maqubela says young people should start charting their career paths from as early as Grade 9, when they choose their high school subjects.

A study by the SA Qualifications Authority and Higher Education SA found that there was a huge gap between what employers expected and what they got after hiring a graduate straight from tertiary studies.

The 2009 study found that employers regarded competence in “English, ICT skills and an understanding of the world of work” as the most important attributes.

“What emerges clearly and unsurprisingly from the study is the importance of proficiency in English, communication and ICT skills,” the study found.

“In most countries an adequate foundation for these competencies will have been laid in the schooling system before students enter into higher education.”

A study by Dr Haroon Bhorat from the Development Policy Research Unit of the University of Cape Town found that those who have a tertiary qualification but not a degree have a 50% chance of finding a job, while those with a degree have a 17% chance of being unemployed. Early school leavers make up the bulk of the jobless.

“They should be entering Further Education and Training (FET) colleges and that’s a key policy question.

What is happening there? Something is amiss in the schooling system if the rate of unemployed learners with matric has increased,” Bhorat says.

The highest increase was among the unemployed with tertiary qualifications.

“We face the looming problem of graduate unemployment, most of them people with post-matric diplomas,” he says. “We are focusing on the overall matric pass rate but the pass rates for university entrance are much lower.
Inappropriate fields of study mean that a university degree is not a sound condition for employment.” Bhorat says this is further aggravated by a “malfunctioning” labour market information system which means young people find it difficult to access information about jobs and careers. “There is very little communication between client and consumer,” Bhorat says. “A broad dialogue is needed between employers and learning institutions.”

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