Economy crippled by skills shortages

2020-03-25 06:00
Prof. Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor University of the Free State.

Prof. Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor University of the Free State.

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The shortage of skills is a global phenomenon. Employers and organisations are expressing concern regarding the need for skilled professionals to meet the demands of various sectors of their economies.

In South Africa concern is extremely high and it is apparent that there is a non-alignment between the skills that graduates are being equipped with and that which is required to be productive in the workforce. Moreover, the continuous contraction of the country’s economy worsens the unemployment crisis and its weak economy is insufficient to create jobs in line with the growth in population. While one would argue that a growing economy supports job creation, it is also evident that skills shortages and lack of social capital have become a systemic problem that prevents access to jobs. Also, the lack of job-seeking support prevents employers and jobseekers from connecting.

South Africa’s unemployment is the highest, 29% according to Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey. More concerning is the unemployment rate of young people between the ages of 15 and 34 years, standing at 56%.

In February, Pres. Cyril Ramaphosa announced in the State of the Nation Address that SA is facing its highest unemployment rate since 2008, coupled with gloomy business confidence levels. Referring to youth unemployment as a crisis, the president indicated that approximately two thirds of the 1,2 million young people entering the labour market each year, remain outside of employment, education, or training.

It starts with a relationship with industry, private sector and commerce. There is certainly an argument to make that a university graduate should not necessarily be job ready, but must have the ability to think, to adapt and to learn relatively quickly. Even if this is the expectation of a university graduate, it is critically important to understand the world of work and to have a relationship with the job market. This is not only important from a future employment perspective, but it will also bring the job market closer to the academic curriculum and the research agenda of the university. It goes a long way to start co-creating solutions and conceptualising futures which are more inclusive and sustainable.

The University of the Free State has taken engagement with the private sector, industry, and commerce very seriously – most of the academic departments (or clusters thereof) have industrial or sector-specific advisory boards where robust engagements are taking place concerning the curriculum, appropriate funding to students, interventions to improve student success, challenges of the job market, and what research projects are essential to tackle. Through these advisory boards, a relationship between the university, industry, private sector, and commerce is established. This, I believe, is a good starting point to not only address employment, but to provide a catalyst for optimising an ecosystem to address the challenges of the economy.

Although not discussed here, the importance of science councils, government and non-governmental organisations (NGO) are the other key components of this ecosystem. The university has gone further to establish a Short Learning Programme Office, as we believe that training, retraining and refreshing of an ever-changing job market is essential – again, this intervention put the university in direct contact with industry, private sector and commerce (and obviously government too).

Our proactivity in creating platforms of engagement with companies about student recruitment, as well as motivating companies, donors and funders to employ and fund our top graduates, is evidenced in the work of our Careers Office. Through this office trends in job placement among graduates are identified to help us better understand which markets to tailor our programme offerings to and to create corporate partnerships for job training opportunities for graduates.

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