As SA sheds jobs our education system is not doing us any favours

One of the well-documented impending crises that South Africa faces is the ticking time bomb of unemployment among young people, which now sits at 56.4%.

Last week Stats SA released the official unemployment data which indicate that the national unemployment figure is now at 29%, the highest in 11 years.

Of the 10.3 million young people aged between 15 and 24 years, the number who are not in employment, not in education and not in training is about 3.3 million.

I recently heard a radio advert, which went along the lines of “some see the trees, others see the wood”, underscoring the insight required to see both the trees and the wood and everything in between.

When we speak of unemployment among young people there is no doubt that everybody sees the trees, the homogenous mass, and the statistics which are regurgitated at every turn.

We see this regurgitation at every state of the nation address, at many parliamentary sittings, at just about every summit or conference, at every business breakfast.

There is certainly no shortage of talk shops on the issue.

And this is followed by sloganeering and noncommittal rhetoric such as “we must work together to tackle unemployment among young people”.

When I say noncommittal, I mean that the recognition of the problem is not accompanied by action-led tactical plans with targets and timelines of how the problem will be solved.

We are merely supplied with wish lists that are simply too far removed from reality.

The longer and harder way to tackle the problem would be to analyse why the statistics are so scary – never mind the unimaginable possibility of seeing the statistics as people, human beings with souls who sink deeper into despair with every day that passes with no prospect of their situation changing.

Besides the ailing economy, which is shedding jobs at an alarming rate and failing to create permanent and sustainable jobs, our education system is not doing us any favours.

South Africa continues to perform poorly and regress in literacy rates and numeracy skills when compared with its African counterparts, such as Rwanda, Kenya and Zimbabwe.

Let’s not even mention global competitiveness.

According to the UK-based publication, The Economist, in 2015 South Africa ranked 75th out of 76 in a ranking table of education systems drawn up by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

In the past 25 years the South African education system has by and large remained the same in the sense that it is linear and geared towards producing employees who must be absorbed by dwindling formal sector jobs.

It is not geared towards creating entrepreneurs and employers.

In any event, what quality of employer or employee can an education system produce when 30% is deemed an acceptable pass for Grade 12?

To apply for university, a pupil needs to achieve at least 30% in their language of learning, with at least 50% in four other subjects.

Last year only 28.7% of the candidates who wrote the National Senior Certificate exam received the necessary marks to apply for a place at a university.

Of those who graduated from university, 31% are now unemployed.

The silver lining to this fact is that the graduate unemployment rate is still lower than the rate among those with lower educational levels, meaning that education is an important lever to improve young people’s prospects in the labour market.

If we could re-engineer the education curriculum from being geared towards consuming and regurgitating large amounts of information, towards building critical thinking skills required to thrive in the fourth industrial revolution market, the fortunes of our young people might start to improve.

President Cyril Ramaphosa recently committed to train 1 million young people in data science and related skills by 2030 and embed critical digital subjects within the basic education system.

This reconfiguration must be done speedily and skilfully, with input from academics and industry, who must ultimately absorb the products of the education, as their future employees.

Last, we need to recognise that young people are not a single, large and homogenous mass that can pave the way for us to listen to them – listening not to respond, but to hear and understand the issues that plague them on a daily basis.

Young people are not simply statistics, but people, souls, minds, hearts who want to be part of families, communities and societies that live with social, physical, financial security to build a better tomorrow.

Ntsaluba is founding member and chair of NMT Capital, co-founder of auditing firm SizweNtsalubaGobodo and co-founder of venture capital firm WZCapital

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August 2020

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