by Miriam Mannak

Survey the skills platform

The endless battle of the skills gap

The number of unemployed graduates is increasing
Does the skills gap exist?

It has been the topic of an endless discussion: South Africa’s skills shortage. From doctors to artisans, from farmers and teachers to scientists and engineers – we seem to be in a pickle when it comes to our skills situation. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of university graduates are sitting at home, unemployed. 

“You need to study to find a good job.” It is a phrase that undoubtedly sounds familiar to many of us, either because we were told this over and over by our parents, because we tried to instil this wisdom into our children, or because of a combination of the above. While studying, generally speaking, enhances one’s chances in the job market, a university or college degree is by no means a guarantee of finding a well-paid, full-time and secure job with all the perks and privileges. 

The proof lies in the various unemployed graduate reports and surveys that have been published over the past months. According to the South Africa’s National Skills Development Handbook, there are around 300 000. Of these job seekers, one-third comprises trained engineers and scientists. 

One of the obvious culprits is the shortage of jobs for recently qualified and inexperienced university graduates.

In South Africa, employment positions in general are a scarce commodity. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of jobs have been shed. Between 2009 and 2011, South Africa lost 1.56-million jobs and created only 710 000 temporary employment opportunities, claims outsourcing and human capital firm, Adcorp. 

To a certain extent, the global crisis of 2008 and 2009 can be blamed for this. The economic slowdown in the West had a tremendous impact on South African exports. The United States and Europe are, after all, our main trading partner. When the financial climate in those parts of the world turned sour a couple of years ago, exports slowed down. This, helped by other factors, pushed us into the first recession in 17 years. 

Just when our economy was crawling up from its lull, the Greek debt crisis struck, driving Europe once again toward the abyss of economic demise. “At the moment, we are importing more than we are exporting. We have a deficit on the current account of 6%,” says Efficient Group economist, Dawie Roodt. 

When an economy slows down, job creation usually takes a knock and jobs are often shed. As a result, President Jacob Zuma had to revise the government’s target to create five million jobs by the end of 2012. 

“When the government said it was going to create a particular number of jobs, we were discussing that matter in the face of global recovery from the 2008 financial crisis. Things have changed; we now have another financial crisis that affects everyone. As long as you have the economic problems, you cannot move faster in terms of growth,” he said.

What makes the situation of South Africa’s unemployed engineering graduates interesting is that engineering is considered a critical skill, for which the demand is sky-high. 

In 2011, Minister of Public Enterprises Malusi Gigaba announced how “Eskom and its suppliers required an additional 3 000 scientists and engineers as well as 24 000 artisans over a five-year period”. 

This statement was reflected in the 2012 Infrastructure Sector Research Survey by executive search firm, Landelahni Business Leaders Amrop SA. According to the document, 74% of South Africa’s local construction companies struggle to fill engineering jobs.

“It seems mind-boggling: while South Africa needs engineers, scores of them are unemployed. The problem, however, is that the industry is in need of experienced, not junior, engineers,” says Brandon Berghoff, project manager and commercial manager at ARiYA Projects, a Cape Town-based property development and consulting firm. 

“Many senior engineers have moved overseas to seize opportunities there. South African engineers are very highly regarded internationally, where salaries are often higher. This means that there are jobs available for engineers, but not for juniors. The private sector in South Africa can only accommodate so many graduates as full-time employees. These people need a lot of guidance,” he adds.

Sigi Naidoo, ARiYA’s chief executive, concurs. “There is a shortage of senior engineers in South Africa. When you, as an employer, take in a youngster who has no experience, you add to the work pressure of a senior engineer who is already under pressure,” he explains. 

“People who come from college know very little.” Naidoo stresses that the private sector, in one way or another, has to come to the table to give unemployed engineering graduates the experience they need to become productive and fill the skills gap. 

“More internship programmes are needed for young engineering graduates. The main reason these youngsters can’t find work is, as I said, often related to a lack of practical experience,” he notes. 

“Every year, we take on a couple of young graduates for a period of six months to a year. We pay them a nominal salary and in exchange they get the working experience they need to apply for a job later on, either with us or elsewhere,” Naidoo says.

The government has a responsibility, too, when it comes to solving the problem. “Government should also ask retired engineers back and involve them in mentoring projects so they can transfer their valuable skills and knowledge on to the younger engineers,” Naidoo said.  

“Government is the largest source of infrastructural projects. If there are no projects, companies can’t hire more staff – including juniors. More infrastructural projects will give the private sector more capacity to take on more trainees.”

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