The rate of graduate unemployment in South Africa currently stands at 8%. Although this is low relative to unemployed youth with fewer qualifications, graduates face significant challenges in work seeking. This emerged from a study conducted by the Centre for Social Development in Africa (CSDA) at UJ that is tracking  1 986 youth over four years who received worker seeker support through Youth Employability Programmes (YEPs) nationally. The findings suggest that additional financial, work force development skills and psychosocial support are needed to assist unemployed graduates to gain access to the labour market. Failure to do so results in a loss of valuable human resources, which affects the economy negatively.

The  cohort of youth in the CSDA’s study had post-secondary academic qualifications such as National Certificates and National Diplomas with 17% having attained a  Bachelor’s Degree or higher.  A closer look at graduates who were unemployed for a period of 12 months revealed first that those with National Certificates and National Diplomas were least favoured by the labour market. Second, 60% of unemployed graduates had previous work experience. A lack of work experience is often cited as the main reason for unemployment, which was not the case for this group. Third, graduate unemployment is also not due to a lack of work search activity as 86% of graduates were active work seekers.

What then are the barriers to their inclusion in the labour market? Our research highlighted the high cost of work seeking, a lack of relevant work experience, a mismatch between their skills set and the available jobs as well as a lack of practical skills as barriers to employment. In an environment of high unemployment and competition between job seekers, young people from poor backgrounds experienced significant disadvantage in finding work.  Most graduates lived in households where the average per capita household income is R676 per month.

Yet, graduates spent on average R616 per month on transport to look for work. In addition, graduates spent an average of R446 per month on application fees, printing, copying, data bundles, scanning and agents’ fees, bringing the total average monthly job search cost to R1 062. They had limited knowledge and information on how best to look for work and tended to use ineffective job search strategies such as applying for jobs that are widely advertised on the Internet (70%) or in newspapers (44%).  About 4 out of ten graduates did not know any acquaintances that they could consult about where and how to look for work and 38% did not have anyone to link them with work opportunities.

The high cost of work seeking coupled with information and knowledge gaps, inadequate social support systems and a lack of relevant work experience are barriers that need to be addressed to break the cycle of graduate unemployment. These strategies are also pertinent to supporting youth unemployment in general.  However, such programmes need to be tailor-made to the needs of the different groups of young people because they are not a homogenous group. Finally, there is need for strategies to address issues relating to the quality of post-secondary vocational education and training.

Leilanie Williams, Researcher at the Centre for Social Development in African (CSDA) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Senzelwe Mthembu, Researcher at the CSDA at UJ.