Closing The Graduate Employment Gap



The stark reality of South Africa’s unemployment crisis highlights the slow pace of progress when it comes to ensuring employment  opportunities for our country’s youth. 

The latest unemployment figures show South Africa’s struggle to escape from the aftershocks of the COVID crisis. With the Quarterly Labour Survey of Q1 2021 showing unemployment reaching a record 32.6% and the expanded unemployment rate, which includes discouraged workers, now standing at 42.3 percent.  However, South African youth (15 -34 years) is bearing the brunt of the problem, with almost one in every second young person unemployed -  while the rate of unemployed university graduates was 9,3% in Q1 2021.     

Statics SA echoes this, finding  59,5% of youth unemployed.  Irrespective of education level: the graduate unemployment rate was 40,3% for those aged 15–24 and 15,5% among those aged 25–34 years, while the rate among adults (aged 35–64 years) was 5,4%.

Of the 10,2 million persons aged 15–24 years, 32,4% (approximately 3,3 million) are discouraged to continue searching and are currently not in employment, education or training (NEET) – implying that close to one in three young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24 years were disengaged with the labour market in the first quarter of 2021, precluding them from gaining experience or further skills. The NEET rate, seen in conjunction with unemployment rates of over 60%, suggests that the youth face extreme difficulties engaging with the labour market in South Africa.

Supply and demand

The high unemployment rate can be attributed to the 7,0% slump in the economy in 2020, off the back of stringent lockdown restrictions, compared with that of 2019, with GDP growing by 4.6% on a quarter-on-quarter seasonally adjusted annualised basis. However, despite this being the third consecutive quarter of positive growth, the South African economy is 2.7% smaller than it was in the first quarter of 2020, reports Stats SA.

As a result, there are more job seekers in the marketplace than ever.   According to the Career Junction Index, “areas of high supply correlate closely to areas of high demand, however supply outstrips demand in some areas, leading to a competitive environment for job seekers.”  With less jobs available to absorb the South African labour force, the unemployment problem is further exacerbated.  

Added to this, is the inability to accommodate about 190 000 new graduates per year. Based on the 2019 QLFS the formal market only absorbs an estimated 41 000 graduates each year.

Although graduate unemployment is clearly less serious than unemployment in other educational categories, the labour demand for graduates is not sufficiently rapid to absorb all graduates. 

Skills and Job mismatch  

Skills mismatch occurs when the graduate doesn’t have the skills required by the employer or a graduate’s career choice does not coincide with jobs that are in demand.  The current job climate demands that students have a holistic set of skills - both in terms of their field of expertise, technical know how to participate in an increasingly digitised work environment and also so called soft skills such as communication, critical thinking, problem solving, self-discipline and time management (especially in the current work from home economy).

It is essential for tertiary institutions to have direct communication and interaction with the workplace, to keep their finger on the pulse of the current needs in the working environment,so as to create an efficient ecosystem that supplies matching skills to quality jobs in order to build our economy and stimulate graduate entry into the workplace. 

Boston City Campus graduate support services division was established for this purpose, to mentor and coach students into work in learning opportunities, and to mentor and coach graduates in the science of getting  a job.  Because of the skills match centred approach taken by the division, it has resulted in such a huge success that companies make them the first port of call when job opportunities arise.

Solutions to skills mismatch require a reciprocal interaction between education and private business - where corporates and academic institutions collaborate to provide training programmes with in demand skills outcomes.  Government can also play a role by managing the responsiveness of academic institutions in supplying the necessary courses to deliver skills which meet the evolving needs of the business environment.

Developing the skill of job searching

While external issues impact on the job search, students need to proactively pursue job opportunities and explore ways to build work experience.  

Getting a job is a science in and of itself.  In fact this is the focus of a sixth month post graduate course, Graduate Support Services,  offered free of charge to Boston Higher Education graduates, to assist in successful job applications and interviews.  

Students need to learn the skills of job searching, networking, preparing for interviews and writing their CV. While experience and skills are important aspects in finding employment, knowing how to create a strategic CV and outsmarting the first filter of the automated applicant tracking system are crucial job search tactics. This, together with developing the necessary emotional intelligence skill set also play a significant part in maintaining resilience and motivation on the job search journey.

Work Readiness

Work readiness demands across the board emotional, psychological skills, together with experience with digital and technical skills relating to the applicant’s area of expertise.  However, experience becomes a catch-22 issue:  the workplace wants someone with experience and you can only get experience once you enter the workplace.  

Boston has built practical training into their degrees and diplomas by making workplace experience a compulsory part of the studies,  enabling the student to have exposure to the workplace and also implement their skillset as part of the learning process. In addition to being able to apply the expertise learned in the course, this also includes developing the right mindset for the workplace by harnessing so-called soft skills such as social interaction etiquette, communication, problem solving and interpersonal skills.

Graduates need to have both academic and practical skills if they hope to find employment and grow in their careers.   While educational institutions, particularly universities, focus on theoretical knowledge, work-readiness training needs to be an integral part of an  academic course so that students are exposed to both sides of the coin.

Much to be done

Even before the global pandemic, young South Africans struggled to find productive employment. And now, paired with the challenges posed by Covid-19, young people need long-term support more than ever before. Jobs have been lost, lives interrupted, education disrupted.

And while we are hopefully emerging from the worst of the pandemic’s impact, its legacy will be with us for years to come in the form of higher youth unemployment. More therefore needs to be done to help support young people to access a job, an apprenticeship, education, or a high quality training opportunity.

Extensive youth training and apprenticeship programmes should be a priority for government. As does  retraining and reskilling so that many can be relocated from sectors that are shrinking. What's more, opportunities need to be unlocked in on-the-rise, growing sectors like digital, eCommerce, data, and artificial intelligence, which are not only bringing fresh opportunities, but  hope for young job seekers.


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