Is South Africa exaggerating graduate unemployment again?

2016-06-23 19:44

Historically, there has been a tendency to exaggerate graduate unemployment in South Africa. Commentators often pointed to educational institutions not adequately preparing graduates for the workplace. And the last study I could find on graduate unemployment in South Africa confirmed that indeed the problem was exaggerated.

Altbeker and Storme (2013: 6) found that graduate unemployment was at 5% for a person with a first degree and 3% for a person with a post-graduate qualification. This was when the narrow definition of unemployment had the unemployment rate at 24% and right when the world was dealing with the economic recession. So a degree certainly improved the job prospects of many young people in difficult circumstances.

But why are young people searching for jobs on the streets if the job market favours them? Especially a graduate with one of the qualifications that forms part of scarce skills in South Africa such as  chemical engineering? You would think a black woman graduate armed with a scarce skill would walk straight into a job after graduation considering that our affirmative action legislation also favours her.

There are a number of variables that could explain why more and more graduates are searching for jobs on the streets. The first obvious one is that there have been a lot of changes in the South African economy since 2011 which was the last year data on graduate  unemployment  was examined. Unemployment has actually gone up since then.

Although this largely affects people without a post school qualification, there is a need for scientific inquiry into graduate unemployment to end the speculation. It would also be naive to think that a graduate simply walks into a job immediately after graduation. Even some med-school graduates have to wait a while for job placements though they are part of the scarce skills group.

The other variable that could explain why South African black graduates are searching for jobs on the streets is that there has been a remarkable increase in the number of black graduates over the years (Altbeker and Storme, 2013: 12). Such an increase may be too much for the job market when matched with a drop in foreign direct investment and an economy that is not generating new jobs. There is a possible relationship between rapidly increasing number of black graduates, economic stagnation or low growth rate and graduate unemployment. While Minister Nzimande might complain about high dropout rate at institutions of higher learning,  it is possible that universities are producing more graduates than the job market can absorb which would confirm the speculation on graduate unemployment.

Then there are the actual resources you'd need when searching for a job such as money to print  and distribute copies of your CV or access to a PC with internet connection. A lot of people may take this for granted but opportunities may exist and be beyond the reach of people who lack the means to access them. Sometime in my life I missed a job interview because I didn't have a measly R20 for transport to Old Mutual. My mother didn't have it and friends who had helped me before also didn't have.

So standing on a street next to traffic lights with a placard displaying your qualifications may be your last hope if you're unemployed.  Job hunting on the streets may be a symptom of something else not necessarily highlighting the extent of graduate unemployment.

Considering that South Africa has had this exaggeration of graduate unemployment before and empirical evidence indeed confirmed it, it would be best to refrain from such speculation as graduate unemployment remained low even when there was a global economic recession. It is unhelpful for those who are currently studying especially final year students who are concerned about finding work after graduation.

What would be helpful is a thorough study of graduate unemployment which should help us understand if indeed there is a reason to worry about graduate unemployment. And to help us understand the extent of the problem if there is such. Another study could perhaps focus on job search skills of the graduates. When do they start looking for jobs? How and where are they searching for them before turning to the street? What drives them to the streets? We have graduates who walk into a job right after graduation and we have others struggling. The alarmist nature of the speculation on graduate unemployment does not help us understand how we can help the graduate that is struggling to find a job. Instead of speculation, perhaps an investigation is the best way.

Cited article

Altbeker, A., & Storme, E. (2013). Graduate unemployment in South Africa: A much exaggerated problem. Centre for Development and Enterprise. Retrieved 23rd June, 2016, from 

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