South Africa faces the twin challenges of mass unemployment and a scarcity of skills. At the same time, the world of work has changed, and the qualifications institutions offer are no longer adequately aligned with the jobs that are available now, or in the future. To address these paradoxes, argues education development and support specialist Monie Naidoo, educational institutions, government and business need to work together more closely to
ensure that the most relevant qualifications and graduate attributes, needed now and in the future, are systematically planned for, and implemented.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) contends that having the right skills will become more valuable than having the right qualifications as future demand for skills will increase. Many also believe that skills-based qualifications are better than general qualifications because they are more aligned to industry needs. This raises the question of whether there should be greater provision and investment in specialised qualifications and skills courses, and less on general qualifications. It also brings into question whether students making career choices and adults making career changes should select those that are more skillsbased over those that have a stronger theoretical focus.
Specialised skills qualifications in this article refer to those whose learning programmes have a significant
component of practical application skills, most often in a workplace, that is workbased learning is an integral part of and is integrated into the curricula of these programmes. Skills is a term commonly used to refer to the broad range of competencies acquired by graduates through completion of a structured learning programme. However, in education discourse, ‘skills’ refer to the psychomotor domain of attributes, the other attributes being the knowledge (cognitive domain), and attitudes and values (affective domain) that students acquire through the study programme.
In this article, skills courses refer to those degrees, diplomas, certificates and short learning programmes
offered by post-school education institutions, i.e. universities and colleges, that lead to professional or occupational qualifications that may be overseen (though not necessarily) by a professional body. Examples include qualifications that lead to becoming an engineer, technician, nurse or fashion designer. General qualifications such as a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Commerce are formative degrees that provide a broad and more general array of competencies.
Collaboration between industries, educational institutions and government is critical for ensuring that the most
relevant qualifications and graduate attributes needed for the future are systematically planned for and implemented now. It is not a matter of whether specialised qualifications are better than general ones, or whether
degrees are better than diplomas or certificates, or whether university qualifications are better than TVET college qualifications.
The country needs a variety of institutional types and qualifications to be offered. The world of work has already
changed, so alignment between the qualifications that institutions offer and the jobs that are, and will most likely be, needed in the future is urgently required. Furthermore, demand for jobs is higher than the number of jobs available, so an entrepreneurial mindset is needed by students and job seekers in response to the unemployment crisis.
New world of work
The new world of work is here in many industries and it is significantly different from the pre-pandemic years. The five-year global scenario painted in the WEF’s The Future of Jobs Report 2020 provides a useful backdrop against which to examine the education and training needs of South Africa’s labour market:
- The pace of technology adoption is expected to remain unabated and may accelerate in some areas.
- Although the number of jobs destroyed will be surpassed by the number of ‘jobs of tomorrow’ created, job creation is slowing, while job destruction is accelerating.
- Skills gaps continue to be high as indemand skills across jobs change in the next five years.
- The future of work has already arrived for a large majority of the online whitecollar workforce.
- In the absence of proactive efforts, inequality is likely to be exacerbated by the dual impact of technology and the pandemic recession.
- Online learning and training are on the rise but looks different for those in employment and those who are unemployed.
- The window of opportunity to reskill and upskill workers has become shorter in the constrained labour market.
- Despite the current economic downturn, the large majority of employers recognise the value of human capital investment.
- Companies need to invest in better metrics of human and social capital through adoption of environmental,
social and governance (ESG) metrics, matched with renewed measures of human capital accounting.
- The public sector needs to provide stronger support for reskilling and upskilling for at-risk or displaced workers.
South Africa is a complex society with a multitude of serious socioeconomic and political challenges. This makes the need for a more informed and nuanced conversation about the types of qualifications and kinds of graduates that are needed for the present and future all the more urgent. The focus should be on whether the post-school education sector is functioning optimally to best serve the graduates, the industries and the economy and, if not, what needs to be done.
Labour market trends
South Africa faces severe poverty, inequality and unemployment. Major job losses due to businesses closing or downsizing in an already weak economy, have been further impacted by factors such as the Covid-19 pandemic, looting, floods and labour unrest. Pandemic lockdown measures caused the greatest disruption and accelerated the adoption of technology that facilitates remote working, automation and information technology (IT) solutions.
The world of work is changing rapidly and already some jobs are being replaced by machines, and new kinds of jobs are emerging. Having meetings online is now commonplace with many businesses and employees now preferring a blended approach and remote working to only physical interactions. Currently, the worst crisis facing the country is the electricity shortage that has resulted in increasing levels of load-shedding, which is having a devastating impact on the economy. Businesses continue to close down, downsize and retrench workers.
“Having a degree or diploma used to hold the
promise of employment and success, but no more.
According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA),
unemployment among young graduates aged 15–24
was 32.6% and 22.4% for those aged 25–34 in the first
quarter of 2022.”
Having a degree or diploma used to hold the promise of employment and success, but no more. According to Statistics South Africa (Stats SA), unemployment among young graduates aged 15–24 was 32.6% and 22.4% for those aged 25–34 in the first quarter of 2022. Yet ironically, the country needs to recruit expatriate graduates in many fields such as IT and engineering. Clearly, there is a mismatch between supply and demand for graduates in highly specialised fields. Overall, there are more graduates being produced than there are jobs available in the shrinking labour market and more unemployed adults are seeking jobs following retrenchment or are wanting to enter the labour market due to economic need. Business, educational institutions and government need to work
together to address the situation.
Businesses spend a substantial proportion of their annual corporate social responsibility (CSR) budgets on education and training. Education is supported by 91% of large South African companies surveyed by Trialogue, and received 39% of CSR expenditure in 2021. Of this amount, 29% went to tertiary education and 31% to further education and training. This includes bursaries, learnerships, work-based learning placements and apprenticeships offered to students during their studies.
Since businesses are potential employers of students and the majority of students enrol for post-school education in order to get a job after graduating, businesses should be in a position to inform the institutions and other roleplayers of the needs in the labour market, and the qualifications and competencies that are in demand. Whether there are more effective and efficient ways for business to make an impact should also be considered.
Students study further after leaving school primarily with the aim of getting a job and earning an income thereafter. There are many institutions to choose from, with universities, and public and private higher education institutions offering certificates, diplomas and degrees, and TVET colleges offering occupational certificates and occupational diplomas of varying duration.
No one kind of qualification is better than the other – each has its own unique purpose and structure with, for example, higher education diplomas having a higher theoretical than practical component than occupational diplomas, which have a larger practical than theoretical component. Therefore, the general term ‘skills course’ needs to be replaced by more specific terminology in the discourse on employability.
The post-school education and training (PSET) sector consists of diverse roleplayers, including institutions; regulatory bodies such as the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA), the Council on Higher Education (CHE), the Quality Council for the Trades and Occupations (QCTO); professional bodies; staff; and students. The Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and the business sector also play a role. The sector faces major challenges ranging from declining funding to student protests related to the #Feesmustfall campaign, a shortage of workplaces in which to place students for experiential training and a shortage of jobs for graduates.
Many PSET institutions have aligned their programmes to the changing job market, while some have completely ignored the emerging trends and are offering low-cost, low-demand programmes to large numbers of students seeking access to higher education – such as the large number of institutions offering one-year higher certificates
in business management that has low employability prospects.
Qualifications in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines are needed for the new world of work and would offer graduates greater prospects of employment. This would, however, require larger numbers of students to take such subjects at the correct level at school, which is fraught with its own set of challenges.
Dispelling myths and misconceptions
It is not the job of higher education institutions to produce job-ready graduates. Their responsibility is to develop a broad range of cognitive, psychomotor and affective competence that will enable graduates to continuously learn as new knowledge and skills are required. Employees with self-confidence and motivation to learn and develop will enhance the agility of businesses to respond to future changes as they occur.
There is a view that employing graduates with lower-level qualifications and training them further in-house will reduce employee costs. While this may be true for some industries that are unlikely to experience significant changes in the future, most large businesses will benefit in the long term from employing highly competent graduates. Examples of attributes that have been identified as being needed now are critical thinking, problem-solving, research, written and verbal communication, and teamwork. There is a danger in employing people with a very narrow focus in a specialised area at a low qualification level as they may have insufficient theoretical knowledge to adapt to changing circumstances.
Specialised qualifications that lead to specific professions are necessary, but may not always lead to jobs. In some fields there is an oversaturation of graduates who are unable to find employment and in other cases, such as the public health sector, vacant posts are not being filled due to financial constraints. A closer alignment between the demand for and supply of graduates is required, and institutions and the DHET need to consider business intelligence when planning enrolments. Students also need to take such information into account when making career choices.
A popular myth is that formative or general degrees have less value than professional qualifications. The formative qualifications provide graduates with a broad set of generic competencies that are applicable in multiple contexts. If one considers the academic backgrounds of people at higher levels in organisations, it
is evident that in certain specialised areas such as finance and medicine, people have remained in their areas of specialisation, but for the large majority of individuals, their career paths have traversed disciplinary paths in their upward mobility.
A proactive and strategic role for business
The business sector is best positioned to inform and influence education roleplayers on the types of qualifications, and the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values that are needed across different industries. Producing up-to-date business intelligence by continuously collecting disaggregated data, analysing trends and widely disseminating this intelligence to institutions and regulators could support better institutional enrolment planning. The focus should not only be on the qualifications and competencies that are needed now, but also on those that may be needed in the future.
Planning education programmes for the future is difficult. Dialogue and collaboration between industries and
institutions are key to addressing the mismatch between graduate attributes and industry needs. It is immoral of
some institutions to enrol students into programmes that have little or no job prospects, or to steer them into such programmes when there are no available spaces in the programmes of their choice.
There is also an opportunity for the business sector to play a more active role in career guidance by showcasing
in-demand jobs and the study choices and work they entail. The majority of students, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, may not have had access to information about new fields such as robotics, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. Access to emerging fields of study may be facilitated by businesses playing a role in partnership with institutions to popularise them through, for example, social media, road shows and career fairs.
Bursaries could also be targeted towards those qualifications for which there is a demand in the labour market to improve graduates’ employability prospects. Many graduates who received financial aid are unable to pay back their student loans because they are unemployed.
While many higher education institutions have developed strategic partnerships and alliances with industries, others have not. Collaboration could take many forms, such as having industry representatives on advisory boards, and programme and curriculum design review panels as project partners, and as associate and guest lecturers. This could have the added benefit of facilitating the placement of students for work-based learning and opening employment opportunities for graduates. Industries would benefit from improving the employability of graduates and this may also facilitate the learning development opportunities of their own employees at these institutions.
Examples of collaboration
The websites and annual reports of the universities outline a number of collaborations with industries and offer examples of the kinds of partnership arrangements that are possible. This article highlights examples from two private higher education providers to offer a glimpse of good practice in the sector.
Regenesys is a private higher education institution that has established academic clusters based on subject areas that are comprised of subject-specific academics, material development writers, students, alumni and industry partners. The purpose is to create communities of practice to deepen the theoretical knowledge and understanding of the academics and industry partners; identify best practice and trends in subject areas and sectors; identify and examine the needs of industry and government and ensure that the curriculum addresses these needs; and establish a strong partnership between academics and industry partners to develop students who are relevant to the workplace. These academic clusters have enriched the learning experience for students not only by exposing them to the latest trends and best-practice cases, but also better equipping them to apply theoretical models and frameworks.
The institution invites speakers such as CEOs, industry experts, senior government officials, entrepreneurs and technical experts to speak to students during relevant modules in their programmes. In addition, Regenesys signed an agreement with The Innovation Hub to collaborate in areas of skills development, education, postgraduate research, business incubation and entrepreneurship development. An agreement with the
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) to collaborate on research initiatives to support postgraduate
students and generate co-published outputs has also been made.
Eduvos is another private higher education institution that has involved industry partners in curriculum design and content, and has brought them onto its campuses to immerse students in real, practical simulations and experiences. These partners offer the students placements for work-based learning and actively recruit graduates for employment.
One example is an IT centre of excellence launched at Eduvos’ East London campus to focus on Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technologies. This is being done in collaboration with the Border Chamber of Commerce and other industry partners, working with government, the wider community, business technology companies and entrepreneurs to sponsor and expose students to cutting-edge 4IR qualifications in state-of-the-art IT simulation hubs, and within organisations for real-life exposure. The partners wish to create a unique ecosystem where
academia, technology and industry meet, for the benefit of the community.
There needs to be a deliberate strategy to better align enrolment numbers and the curriculums of the qualifications into which students are enrolled with the current and projected demands of the labour market. Unemployment among graduates is high, and where professionals have to be brought in from other countries because there are insufficient numbers of locally trained professionals, they are generally graduates with degrees and, in many instances, postgraduate qualifications. Institutions and regulatory bodies should take active steps to improve the alignment between the demand for and supply of graduates for the labour market.
More coordinated and targeted collaborations between key roleplayers in government, education institutions and
industry are likely to yield better returns on investment. A prerequisite for this would be more regularly updated and detailed collection, analysis and dissemination of intelligence on the supply and demand of human resources to these roleplayers. Work is being done in this area, such as by the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership (LMIP), the World of Work reference group of Universities South Africa, researchers, professional bodies and businesses, but more comprehensive, job-segmented and regularly updated insights are needed.
Specialised and skills-based qualifications are needed at all levels, but these need to be aligned to the current and future jobs needed. Enrolling students into programmes for which there are no jobs available or that graduates would not be able to use to become entrepreneurs or as a pathway to a job, will not address the massive unemployment crisis in the country or the growing anger and frustration among young people.
Technological innovation will continue to radically change the ways in which we live, work and learn. Some jobs have already been replaced by machines and new kinds of jobs are emerging. Online learning and meetings held
virtually have become normal and new modes of blended interactions have evolved. The possibilities and opportunities for our future are unpredictable and it will be those businesses and individuals that can rapidly adapt to change that will survive and flourish. A necessary precondition for this will be for structures such as educational institutions and the government, which sets up regulatory frameworks, to proactively create the
conditions that will support emerging realities.
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- The Future of Jobs Report 2020. (2020). World Economic Forum.
- The World of Work: requirements change for workers, students and universities. (10 October 2021). Universities South Africa (USAf).
- Why skills – and not degrees – will shape the future of work. (21 September 2020). World Economic Forum (WEF).
- Why Skills Training Can’t Replace Higher Education. (9 October 2019). Harvard Business Review.