Graduates face an increasingly uncertain future
Graduate under-employment is not new; neither will it disappear any time soon. In fact, it is bound to worsen as the economy declines and with it, employment.
With so many people chasing the few available jobs, not everyone can reject offers, despite dissatisfaction over being underpaid and underutilised.
Graduate underemployment is not an easy variable to collect data on.
Under-employment describes a condition in which people are employed in jobs that are not full-time or in regular jobs that are inadequate with respect to their training, studies or economic needs. These can be divided into three categories: skilled workers in low-income jobs; skilled workers in jobs that do not fully use their skills; and part-time workers who would rather work full-time.
The popular narrative commonly used by universities in an attempt to competitively market, position and attract the best students with high academic potential is the promise of almost immediate absorption into the labour market and being an active participant in the economy.
The University of the Witwatersrand states that 97% of its graduates find employment within six months of completion, with the University of Cape Town (UCT) a close competitor, claiming that from their class of 2018, 80% of their graduates were “meaningfully” employed.
UCT further states that 20% of its graduates earn more than R20,000 per month. The statistics provided by these universities provoke a lot of questions. What method of data collection was used to make these findings? What meaning can be attributed to language such as “meaningfully employed” and how did they audit the data so as to dismiss any latent bias towards them and the university brand?
Graduates increasingly find themselves in dead end internships and learnerships
These two universities, however, are not the only institutions who collect such statistics and make such claims to bolster their brands.
The statistics collected by all the South African universities who conduct such studies are focused solely on the employment context. The word unemployment in these exercises is hardly ever used, and underemployment never. This, of course, is done deliberately to focus the prospective student, parent or/and guardian on the brand and what benefits associated with that brand can help prospective students after they graduate.
The Quarterly Labour Force Survey by Stats SA — first quarter of 2020 — breaks down unemployment by education level in the following way: 54.8% of those with less than matric; 35.4% with matric; 6.8% with tertiary qualifications not from a university branch; 2.3% graduates and 0.7% classified as other.
Graduates increasingly find themselves in dead-end internships and learnerships. Learnerships that historically employed matrics are now increasing their education requirement level to a bachelor’s degree. These internships and learnerships lure graduates with the promise of equipping them with skills that will make them more attractive in the labour market when their contract ends.
They promise to give graduates an opportunity to practise under the supervision of seasoned professionals, allowing them to accumulate experience to complement their qualification and general work experience.
These employers routinely state that they are under no obligation to absorb the graduate when the contract expires. Some, if not most, don’t even contractually state their responsibility to equip the graduate with a skill, even though they are subsidised by the state to do so and even score BBBEE points for providing training.
This has led to graduates being reduced to making coffee, preparing meeting rooms, printing copies and other responsibilities that are detached from their purpose of employment. Those lucky enough to get some form of training, receive training that is not fit for purpose and adds little of value to their future job hunt. No individual person or institution, internally or externally, monitors and regulates this, leaving these graduates to fend for themselves in the work space.
Some of these graduates hold critical qualifications in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and finance. They hold qualifications in governance, social work, psychology and other qualifications needed by the public and private sector to advance the country economically and socially. Some are postgraduates with a proven track record in research. They now sit underutilised or not used at all for 12 to 24 months while collecting a stipend or salary.
There are some graduates who have voluntarily taken up opportunities that don’t require a graduate qualification, to score a job teaching English in China. This, of course, has survival as the driving force.
It is rather challenging to accurately track and quantify graduate underemployment, but what is harder is getting a university, or any other agency, to develop the incentive to do so, or at least speak about it.
South African universities do produce bright young minds, that if properly trained using the existing training schemes and progressive legislation, such as section 20, sub section 3 and section 4 of the Employment Equity Act can work to the benefit of the country and curb the brain drain.
Bongani K Mahlangu is a PhD candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand. He writes in his personal capacity.
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.