Is A Skills Gap The Reason Behind High Unemployment In SA?

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Year after year, the substantial youth unemployment rate in South Africa is briefly called to attention with little transformation. Following recent 2023 youth unemployment statistics, industry professionals have noted a skills gap as a major contributing factor to youth employment.

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Recent statistics have revealed that 60.7% of South African 15–24-year-olds, and 39.8% of 25–34-year-olds, are still unemployed. The country’s youth unemployment has consistently remained one of the highest across the world, a statistic that many youth and industry professionals would like to see change. 

A recent segment by the SABC on the youth employment crisis acknowledged that the youth unemployment rates have been exacerbated by a skills gap crisis as companies begin to move away from manual labour and start to employ artificial intelligence (ai) and automation strategies. 

These developments pose a threat in that they have the potential to replace workers in non-skilled or semi-skilled positions, and youth populations are not properly prepared to deal with such technology-based developments. The SABC interviewed economist Dr. Thabi Leoka and Chairperson of the Skills Development Working Group in the SA BRICS Business Council, Mapule Ncanywa to gain their insights on why this issue exists and how it could be resolved.

Youth Unemployment and Skills Development Crises

Dr. Leoka notes that provincial unemployment statistics are very worrisome, with 53,5% of the working population in the North West and about 49% in the Eastern Cape currently unemployed. This means that in a number of provinces, about half of the working population are not actively working.

She notes that when speaking to companies looking for applicants, they expressed their struggle to find workers interested in lower-level roles in mines or other types of manual labour. Dr. Leoka argues that “it seems as if the young are not interested in certain jobs that the older generation used to occupy”.

She believes that the reason for this may be that many South African youth often move to urban areas such as Johannesburg in search of better jobs, leaving these lower-level jobs unoccupied. This often leads to them sacrificing a potentially more comfortable life in rural areas, in pursuit of work in more competitive urban markets.

Dr. Leoka suggests that the post-school education system should work better to prepare and develop the work skills of youth outside of academia. She says that Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, and university education should not be the only post-school options for South African youth.

There should be more technikon education options, and more meaningful promotion of youth entrepreneurship beyond the surface level. She also believes that as South Africans, we should draw skills development tactics from other African countries, such as Kenya for example, who are said to have made great advancements in working technology as a skill.

Skills Development Solutions

As chairperson of the BRICS Skills Development Working Group, Mapule Ncanywa highlights some developments that her organisation has made in order to aid skills development in the country. She shares that they focus on developing emerging and transformational skills through their BRICS academies.

These academies do callouts for young people who have a certain skill level, to give them the opportunity to upskill themselves. A standardisation committee identifies skills gaps across the different BRICS countries and comes up with a standard to train and challenge the youth at these academies.

A prominent skill gap in South Africa is in digital literacy in the engineering, manufacturing, construction, creative and cyber security areas, Ncanywa shares. To address this and other skills gaps, the BRICS Skills Development Working Group plans to issue a skills atlas to all 21 Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) in the country.

The atlas will detail emerging skills in the working sector, skills that are changing, and skills that have become obsolete. It will also provide SETAs with opportunities to implement on-the-ground upskilling methods.

The atlas is active in the Food and Beverage sector but is yet to be implemented among the other sectors. BRICS also offers free online training webinars for youth to pursue.

In light of the progress in attempts at skills development for unemployed youth, South Africans can only hope that active changes will be made to rectify youth unemployment and the skills crisis, and that the issue does not fall to the periphery once more.

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South Africa's unemployment rate is at a record high, with majority of unemployed people being part of the youth. Learnerships could very well be one of the solutions to this major problem.

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