Students on the campus of the University of Cape Town
c Many graduates of South African universities are struggling to find work [Ian Barbour]

South Africa: Why can’t graduates find work?

For many young South Africans who grew up under severely poverty stricken families, education is their only ticket out of poverty. They grow up being told that they are where they are because their parents were never given the privilege to further their studies.

Kelebogile Ramaotsoa, a 24 year old woman from Seshego a township just outside Polokwane, Northern South Africa, is one of them. Having finished school, Kelebogile, who was raised by a single parent with two other siblings, decided to further her studies at Tshwane University of Technology. She then registered for a diploma in correctional services management.

Being the first person in her family to make it to university, she realised how lucky she was and made sure that she grabbed the opportunity with both hands, and she graduated in 2009.

Three years later, Kelebogile is still unemployed, and she now has a baby to worry about. “The course I chose requires me to only work in the department of correctional services and they have just not been hiring,” she says.

Kelebogile is now considering starting her own catering business. “I can’t afford to go back to school because I still owe the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and I don’t want to increase my debt.”

Labour market analyst Loane Sharp says that the South African economy is not growing fast enough to create more jobs, but there is also a mismatch between what the economy requires and what is taught in universities. “Universities are just not preparing students enough for the world of work.”

Kelebogile’s mistake of choosing a course that is not in demand is a common one amongst students in South Africa. Fields such as accounting, law, medicine and engineering are all experiencing a dearth of young talent, whilst graduates with social science and humanity degrees are much less likely to find employment.

Kirti Menon, registrar at the University of the Witwatersrand, says that it takes three to five years to produce a graduate and as a result there might  be a shift in what the economy requires by the time some students graduate. “Universities are, however, increasingly working closely with industries as well as professions in order to ensure that there is a strong link between curricular and skills that are required,” Menon adds.

Sadly, the problem with South African graduates starts as early as high school when many of them choose the wrong subject combinations. Due to poor preparation and lack of guidance, students find themselves randomly choosing streams that end up limiting them career wise.

The fact that South Africa has a shortage of good maths and science teachers is also escalating the problem. High school students are opting not to study the sciences as they are struggling to pass the exams, but it is often a costly decision as maths is an entry requirement for most of the academic courses.

Research conducted by Stats SA in 2009 revealed that there were 255,000 unemployed graduates, whilst a 2011 survey by Adcorp showed that 600,000 graduates were unemployed. If both these results are accurate, then it means that there was a staggering 235% increase in unemployment between 2009 and 2011.

The Adcorp research further revealed that between 2000 and 2012 the number of permanent jobs decreased from 11 million to 9.1 million, whilst temporary jobs increased by 2.6 million.

Although job creation has been a government priority for the past twelve years, there has not been any consistent improvement in South Africa’s unemployment statistics. The South African Graduate Development Agency found that only 7.8% of graduates are absorbed into the formal sector. Just over a quarter of those polled interned to gain experience and a further 12.5% volunteered. Only 9% continue education whilst 30% remain unemployed.

The chief executive of the South African Graduates Development Association (SAGDA), Thamsanqa Maqubela, says that university qualification is not the only thing employers are looking for. “They are also looking for people with an ability to communicate the theory and apply it in the work place…In addition to that they want people with confidence, humility and individual brilliance.”

Kirti Menon encourages undergraduates to scan the environment, because very often you need something more than an undergraduate degree to qualify for a particular job. “University education is much more than matching a student’s interests to a particular job; it has to be broader than that in order for us to have fully grounded graduates.”

While there is a heavy burden on South Africa to begin to begin to grow an economy that creates more jobs; universities also have the responsibility to begin to produce employable graduates. In addition to that students with the help of high school teachers need to do a detailed research before choosing a course.

Mahlatse Mpobane


Mahlatse is a journalism graduate that is passionate about news and current affairs. She is currently doing her Bachelor of Technology in journalism at Tshwane University of Technology and also working as a Production Assistant for eNCA.

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