South Africa's unemployed youth face a new threat: technology

During his 2018 State of the Nation Address, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa said, “Our most grave and most pressing challenge is youth unemployment. It is, therefore, a matter of great urgency that we draw young people in far greater numbers into productive economic activity.” 

The youth make up 36% of the country's population and yet in 2017, 57% of South Africans aged 15 to 24 were unemployed. This is the highest level recorded by the International Labour Organisation. Female youth are the most vulnerable, with the unemployment rate being 12% higher than their male counterparts. 

A majority of young people are employed in semi-skilled jobs, however, individuals with a tertiary or post-secondary education are more likely to be favoured during employment recruitment. They compete with relatively few candidates, making their chances of finding employment higher than that of the semi-skilled individuals. 

Also read: Are graduates prepared for the job market?

State of emergency

Poverty and unemployment are closely linked, as 75% of South Africans rely on wages as a source of income. The level of education also contributes to unemployment rates. Many learners who start school do not complete their secondary schooling. Out of the 1.1 million pupils that started grade 1 in 2006, only half progressed to write matric exams in 2017. 

Four in 10 South Africans fall under the lower-bound poverty line, meaning they cannot afford funding for education, adequate food and essential non-food items. As a result, the children belonging to these households suffer. The chances of these children being able to enroll in tertiary education institutions in the future are very low. In 2017, almost 200 000 students enrolled for their first year at public universities. That is 2% less than the number of those who enrolled in 2016. 

Also read: Seven bursaries matriculants should know about

Even though the level of education has improved in South Africa over the years, employers are still finding it hard to fill vacancies, especially those that require specialist skills.

The age of technology

Emerging technology could pose a threat to the semi-skilled youth. In a worldwide survey of 10 000 individuals, one in three respondents were shown to be worried that they could lose their jobs to automation. New jobs are already emerging from new technological inventions. Because of this, 30% of South African youth enrolled in science, engineering and technological studies (STEM) in 2015. It's the largest amount of students to do so in history. This will enable them to better adapt to the changes that are transpiring because of technology and also make South African youth compete on an international level. 

It is imperative that schools implement STEM subjects so South Africans will be able to take advantage of the wave of emerging technology that is shifting the nature of work globally. It is also important that further education and training constantly update their strategies so they reflect the evolving business needs in the digital and automated workplace. 

Also read: STEAM not STEM: Why our future scientists need arts training

For the youth currently seeking employment in low or semi-skilled jobs, the Youth Employment Service (YES) advises that a year of work experience, a CV and employment letter can boost their chances of future work. The youth are also encouraged to look for work through digital platforms by filling out forms. These platforms can share intelligence and knowledge that aid independent workers to leverage their own value. 

How do you think youth unemployment can be combated? Share your thoughts and comments by emailing and we may publish your comments. 

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