Skills bias makes it unlikely to crack SA unemployment

Johannesburg - The bias towards “skilled” work in service sectors makes it unlikely that South Africa’s unemployment levels will be reduced in the near future, the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) said this week.

The think-tank released a comparison of current labour statistics with figures from 2001, to demonstrate the trend towards service work requiring higher education.

Between 2001 and 2017, the employed population of South Africa rose by 3.6 million to 16.1 million. The fastest-growing category of jobs was what Stats SA describes as professionals.

Employment under this category grew 133% in the 17 years, to total about 900 000, according to the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey.

Almost all people employed under this category had tertiary education.

In absolute terms, jobs under the managers category grew by much more over the past 17 years and this was the foremost contributor to the overall increase in employment.

Jobs described as managerial grew by 121% to 1.5 million in the 17 years.

The skills requirements in this category are somewhat lower, with less than half of employed managers having tertiary education.

The rest had mostly completed high school, according to official statistics.

While the fastest growth in employment is in these skilled occupations, the growth in elementary occupations has been almost equal to managerial ones in numerical terms, off a larger base. Elementary jobs including bricklaying and street sweeping and require little to no training or specialised skills.

About 20% of workers in elementary jobs have matric, but the vast majority have not completed high school.

The next major contributor to employment in the past two decades has been service and sales jobs. Here 40% of workers have matric.

One step up the skills ladder, 50% of all clerical workers have matric.

Only 15% of domestic workers have matric and the vast majority did not get further than Grade 10.

Gabriela Mackay, author of the IRR note, said in an accompanying press release that the changing nature of labour demand in terms of skills has accompanied a shift from manufacturing and mining to services.

“The change in structure means that there is no longer a large, low and semiskilled sector capable of absorbing the bulk of the labour force lacking the skills and education to find jobs in the skilled sector,” she said.

Another interesting long-term development in South Africa’s labour market is that the informal sector has shrunk significantly since 2001.

Back then, almost 27% of employment was informal. Now that proportion is 17.1%. This reflects the apparent evisceration of the informal trading sector, which fell from 2 million jobs to 1.14 million jobs between 2001 and 2017.

Over the period, formal trade jobs grew by almost the same number – from 1.46 million to 2.12 million.

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