Dealing with Unemployment!

A Collective Responsibility

Unemployment, the scourge of post-apartheid South Africa, has reached its highest level of 29% in a decade! This failure to provide sustainable employment lies at the heart of most of our social ills and is one of the clearest examples of our failure as a nation. Albeit that there are many complex factors that feed unemployment, no amount of statistical analysis can capture the hopelessness, frustration and pain when our most prized assets, our citizens, face the daily grind of joblessness and poverty every single day. Couple this with the World Bank’s projection that for 2018 and 2019 South Africa’s GDP growth is expected to pick up to a meek 1.1percent and 1.7percent respectively and it becomes clear that decisive action is urgently required.

The daily fiasco of rising unemployment, across all sectors, should be declared a national crisis where financial and intellectual resources are deployed from all key stakeholders – national government, labour unions, business, civil society and HEIs to draft a decisive plan to address this.

The National Development Plan identifies quality education and job creation as South Africa’s most important priorities. It is not surprising therefore that of the 6.7 million unemployed persons reported in the recent statistics, 57% of this group had an education level below matric, followed by those with matric at 33,4% in the second quarter of 2019. That only 2,2% of the unemployed persons were graduates and 6,9% had other tertiary qualifications as their highest level of education affirms the value of higher education. However, education can and should do better. With a major portion of the national budget being allocated to education, it is disturbing when the recent International Monetary Fund (IMF) working paper, “Struggling to Make the Grade: A Review of the Causes and Consequences of the Weak Outcomes of SA’s Education System” paints a dire picture of the basic education system.

Education can be both transformative and catalytic and the key focus should be on how can we leverage better value from it, to kick start job creation. A starting point is to interrogate our current academic offerings and assess these against what the job markets need. With large numbers of graduates attempting to enter the declining job market each year competing for fewer job opportunities, job readiness is not only a key consideration, but the issue of the compelling value they can add is also critical.

In one of his columns, New York Times columnist, Thomas L. Friedman, once wrote, ‘Today, the average is officially over.’ because in a competitive world and where the unique value proposition is becoming the norm, being average doesn’t cut it anymore. Accessing business or job opportunities require above average and often excellent capabilities. Individuals and organisations who are sustainable and successful, are those who offer better value; who have transcended being ‘average’. Higher education and skills development institutions should revise outdated curricula and qualifications and instil in graduates the skill-sets and behavioural attributes that enable them to thrive in complex, fast-changing work environments.

Globalisation and the onslaught of digital technology are disrupting conventional business practices and workstyles. Innovative and entrepreneurial thinking has become imperative for graduates in the 21st Century knowledge economy. Self-starters who can proactively respond to daunting social and development challenges, who can weave through complex situations and who can tap synergy from diverse disciplines, will benefit from the new economic growth trends that include amongst others, the growing services sector, artificial intelligence, data science and alternative energy. These present new and, locally and internationally.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) states “Entrepreneurs are key drivers of economic and social progress. Rapidly growing entrepreneurial enterprises are often viewed as important sources of innovation, productivity growth and employment (small and medium-sized enterprises account for 97% of all jobs in emerging economies). Many governments are therefore trying to actively promote entrepreneurship through various forms of support.” Their research clearly shows the need to look at how we tap into markets with entrepreneurial innovation, financing and how to better leverage value from human skills.

We have to acknowledge that in SA our persistently low levels of entrepreneurial activity needs to be addressed through educating our youth in entrepreneurship capabilities as well as the various support initiatives for entrepreneurial businesses. Government’s National Development Plan places an onus on small and expanding businesses to create some 90percent of new jobs. Our established business ownership rate (% adults that are owners/managers) is only 2.5%, a third of regional and similar efficiency-driven economies. Additionally, at 6.9% our Total Early Stage activities (TEA) are amongst the lowest globally and regionally, who are well into the double digits. (GEM 2016).

We need to encourage entrepreneurship from early school years through to tertiary education and embed entrepreneurship into the curriculum with experiential project learning, coding, AI collaboration and critical thinking using freely available platforms such as IBM’s Digital Nation Africa. We need our aspiring entrepreneurs to start and grow impactful businesses that can transform the goal of jobs to serve the needs of productive and efficiency economies, toward the goals of work to pursue human endeavours, in economies that are driven by innovation, creativity and purpose, the pursuit of which is freed only by eliminating the debilitating ravages of poverty and unemployment.

Rudi Kimmie (PhD) and John Durr (MBA) are from the TSIBA Business School. They write in their personal capacities.