We can’t all be teachers, and if we would be- some teachers would be fortunate to be placed in schools and some would be left out with qualifications but no jobs. Why do I say so?

Growing up in the villages, I was taught to perceive certain career paths as suitable for some people and not myself. For instance, during my matric year I was advised to study education, nursing, administration or clerk. I don’t recall anyone encouraging me to study something unique and rare in my community like IT, Dental Technology or other careers.

Even though, my parents were aware that I love Science and Maths but everyone’s ultimate goal was to see me choosing a career which everyone is familiar with. However, I understood that my career is my life so I would not choose anything for the sake of pleasing my own family or community.  

I chose to enrol for a National Diploma in Food Science and Technology at the Durban University of Technology (DUT) in 2012. My family did not really understand why I chose it but I knew everything starts with my passion and I had to pursue my destiny.

Food science draws from many disciplines such as biology, chemical engineering, and biochemistry in an attempt to better understand food processes and ultimately improve food products and their safety for the general public. A food scientists, studies the physical, microbiological, and chemical makeup of food.

The food people consume on a daily basis is the result of extensive food research, a systematic investigation into a variety of food’s properties and compositions. After the initial stages of research and development comes the mass production of food products using principles of food technology. All of these interrelated fields contribute to the food industry – the largest manufacturing industry in South Africa.    

That’s what I enrolled myself in the course. So, while doing my first year, my lecturer informed me about the W&RSETA bursary opportunities for our field of study and I jumped quickly at the opportunity. Having my application approved for the bursary was a huge relief financially. This enabled me to concentrate on my studies. I excelled in all modules and that’s when my parents started to see that I chose what I love.

I am currently doing my Masters in Food Science and Technology at (DUT) full time and also working part time at a food company where I am receiving my training. I have been responsible for Research and Development in the fields of fresh and processed products, food safety and human nutrition in the context of food security and consumer support.  

I was in awe when I got invited by Prof Dennis Nielsen from the University of Copenhagen in Denmark to work with him on the microbiological characterization of injera using molecular based methods for two months, whom my academic supervisor Prof Oluwatosin introduced me to.   

I rushed home to share the news, and my mother couldn’t stop saying “My child you are exposed to opportunities we never had as your parents”, I smiled and took some time to appreciate my life.

The reason why I am sharing my path is because to date in South Africa we are still facing rife youth unemployment. And I believe to fight youth unemployment we need to explore other career choices as young people. It is devastating to know more than 50% of our youth are without jobs.

24 years into democracy, we still have young people being trained in careers that do not prepare them sufficiently for the job market. Some indicators from StatsSA 2017 and 2018 suggest that the youth’s education levels have improved in recent years. Between 1996 and 2016, the number of those who had completed matric grew from 3.7 million to 11.6 million, an increase of 211%.

Wouldn’t it be nice to witness an increase in youth’s education with majority of young people trained in scarce skills and careers that are stigmatised as suitable for certain persons?

We need to change the mind-set of getting a qualification for the sake of getting one to young people who are not scared to explore other career choices out of what is normal in their communities. This will help to fill jobs that are unoccupied due to scarcity of skills in some specialities.

We need to do all we can because South Africa’s youth unemployment is both an individual tragedy, as well as a community and socio-economic one. An income and the independence that goes with it are crucial for building a sustainable and thriving society.

Mellisa Nokulunga Jula is a beneficiary of the Wholesale and Retail Sector Education and Training Authority (W&RSETA) Bursary scheme.

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