Written by Gavin Keeton
With Rhodes University’s Graduation ceremonies coming up next week and Worker’s Day barely a week further, this week’s column focusses on the issue of employment and unemployment.
According to Statistics SA, 27% of South Africa’s labour force is unemployed. When this measure is expanded to include “discouraged” workers – those who have given up looking for jobs – unemployment rises to a staggering 36%.
The incidence of unemployment greatly differs according to age, race and education. Young workers are more likely to be unemployed than older workers with similar education levels. This is because employers value work experience more than school education.
A staggering 64% of those younger than 24 years who are looking for jobs are unemployed. 41% of workers aged 25-34 years are unemployed. This means 64% of unemployed workers in SA are less than 34 years old.
Unemployment falls sharply as education attainment increases. For workers younger than 34 years unemployment is 49% for those who did not complete matric. Unemployment falls to 37% for those with matric, and to 21% for those with matric plus some sort of tertiary qualification.
They key for getting a job in South Africa is a university degree. Only about 6% of university graduates of all ages are unemployed. Unemployment is higher for recent graduates than older graduates, reflecting that employers still place weight on work experience even if you have a degree.
Graduate unemployment in SA is quite low by international standards. It is remarkably low in a country where unemployment is so very high. It reflects the contradiction that SA simultaneously has very high unemployment and a shortage of skilled workers. Our education system is failing to provide most of our people with the skills needed in the workforce.
For students graduating this month, the good news is that a degree from Rhodes University is exceptionally well-regarded in the labour market. Unemployment amongst Rhodes graduates is much lower than for graduates from most other universities.
A recent study by researchers at the Neil Aggett Labour Studies Unit and the ISER found that unemployment amongst recent Rhodes graduates was 6.8%. This is comparable with overall graduate unemployment nationally and is very impressive when one considers the importance attached by employers to age and work experience.
It is very much lower than another university examined in the study. Where you have studied matters.
And so does what you have studied. Unemployment amongst education, commerce and science graduates was lower than for Rhodes graduates as a whole. But unemployment amongst all Rhodes faculties was remarkably low.
Where you studied matters much more than what you studied.
Not all new graduates immediately find the job of their dreams. But the importance attached by employers to the skills acquired within the workplace suggests that first-time work-seekers should not be too fussy.
Promotion within the workplace may after a time more fully meet your aspirations. But even if the job you really want is not available at your current employer, the skills acquired in your first job increase your marketability when you look elsewhere.
Importantly, once employed you can dictate the timing of a move to another job. When you look for your first job, you want to start immediately after finishing your final exams. But not all jobs are available in January. Many become available during the course of the year when the incumbents resign or are promoted. If you already have a job you are able to apply for such positions as and when they become available.
The value attached by employers to experience suggests that if you are struggling to find your first job you should consider volunteering to work in an NGO, government department or private company.
Of course, you’d much rather be paid after studying for so many years. But if you make yourself really useful as a volunteer, the organisation in which you are working will not want to lose you. This may encourage them to offer you a paid position. Even if they do not, the on-the-job experience you acquire, coupled with your university degree, will help you find a paying job.
The GBF wishes to congratulate the graduates on their achievement. You will now join a small percentage of our population with a tertiary qualification which empowers you to make a significant difference in your community. It also places on you the responsibility to use that power wisely for the benefit of our society. We wish you the best of luck as you start your working careers.
Gavin Keeton is professor in the Department of Economics and Economic History at Rhodes University.