Studying The Right Degree To Beat SA’s Frightening Unemployment Stats

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South Africa’s unemployment rate is the highest in the world, at 33%. For young people, the figure is even higher, with some estimates putting the number at 71%. Education is the foot in the door for many but when even graduates struggle to find jobs, it is clear that not just any degree will do and students need to be careful about the study choices they make. 

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Hlumela Dyantyi never thought she would become unemployed. She had a degree from a top SA university and yet, when she lost her job during the COVID-19 pandemic, she could not find employment again. She says, “Even among those of us with certificates and degrees, the sense of urgency and disillusionment is deepening.

A friend and I recently reflected on the promise that was made to us — that if we did well in high school and attained tertiary qualifications we would be guaranteed job security and growth opportunities.”   

For many, though, this promise has failed to deliver. For educators, this is a call to action. For teachers in school, it is vital to send the message that, yes, a degree is important – but not just any degree.

Hlumela studied journalism, a popular and well-respected field, but it is an industry that has suffered enormous losses globally over the past decade due to a decline in newspaper sales and the emergence of the Internet and social media. Major news institutions have shut down and the country’s major media houses are cutting down on staff each year.   

Harambee, a youth employment accelerator, is an NGO that has been working hard to address unemployment for especially youth. The organisation says of the one million people who leave school each year and enter the job market, only 20% find work that same year.

According to Harambee, these are the young people with tertiary qualifications and networks. Another 20% will find a job in the informal sector and the remaining 60% will remain unemployed and become at risk of giving up even looking for work.   

For young people looking to make career choices and considering study options, journalism should not be on the list – unless it is a programme with a strong digital approach, possibly including graphic design and website building, teaching search engine optimisation (SEO), copywriting, and possibly some coding.

The government’s list of scarce skills offers a very insightful take on jobs that are in demand at the moment in South Africa. At the top of the list, are information technology (IT) and finance posts. These include jobs as software developers and IT technicians as well as tax specialists, accountants, and auditors.

It is evident that for qualified individuals with these skills and the necessary qualifications, the job market is a different ballgame.   

One SA researcher who looked particularly at the mismatch between jobs and skills in the SA unemployment sector found that the field of study had a huge impact on employability.

Studying the relationship between career choice and unemployment length revealed the most important factors affecting graduate unemployment were qualifications and majors. These didn’t appear to be aligned with labour market requirements.

To achieve a better alignment, it’s also important to know why students are choosing to study subjects that aren’t in high demand,” says Nombulelo Precious Mncayi. 

For many South Africans, however, access to tertiary education is a problem. They don’t have the financial resources or the time to dedicate to a lengthy degree programme. Then there is the SA schooling system, one of the world’s worst education systems.

Being a product of a poor school results in many young people passing matric with weak marks, which are not necessarily a reflection of their potential but rather points to the quality of the schooling they received.   

“When I failed mathematics in matric, I thought it was the end for me,” admits Neil Bonhomme, now a mid-level manager at Santam Insurance.

He realised he needed some kind of education if he wanted to succeed in life, but his bad marks in school excluded him from higher education. Then he found out about Milpark Education’s Bridging Programme, a short, part-time course which provides business management and numeracy and opens the door for those who pass the course, to degree programmes.

Neil is currently studying his B.Com online with a specialisation in short-term insurance.  

This is one important pathway: finding courses that are flexible and affordable, that offer practical, industry-related expertise and knowledge and prepare students for the real world they will encounter.     

According to Kelly Joshua, head of education investing for Old Mutual Alternative Investments, there is a big need for what she calls, enhanced learning environments that are accessible especially for those from lower-income areas. She also notes the misalignment between the skills youth have and the technical skills that are currently in demand. She says:

The education system needs to be further enhanced to ensure learners have the much-needed skills and capabilities aligned with the industry's oncoming rise of technology-based innovation.

Hlumela points out, “Young people are desperate. Under the current circumstances it has become hard for us to even hold on to the fundamental driving force to keep us looking, applying, and trying: a sense of hope.”

Neil Bonhomme also mentions hope when he talks about finding out that it was possible after all to study further.

The bridging course gave me hope, that it wasn’t too late for me, that I could still achieve anything I wanted to.

We need to give hope to the many South Africans struggling to find a job, sending out CVs and waiting for responses with bated breath. Because while they still have hope – there is the possibility of building a future, growing an economy and being a productive member of society.

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