Building High-level Competencies and Expertise Among South African Students – 19.05

Building High-level Competencies and Expertise Among South African Students – 19.05
Raj Mruthyunjayappa

Audience who will benefit from reading this include:

Educationalists and decision-makers in HE | Influencers in HE (including analysts) | University leadership in the Admissions and Student Affairs | Board Members of educational institutions | Registrar’s Office | IT and Technology offices of educational institutions | Alumni

South Africa continues to face an ever-increasing human development crisis, and that is reflected by the number of 15- to 34-year-olds who are disengaged from both work and education. This part of the population is technically known to researchers as youth who are not in employment, education, or training (NEET).

Close to 17 million people aged 15-60 were NEET in the latter part of 2020.This figure comprises 44% of the total 15 – 60 aged population

Low levels of education and skills heighten the risk of a person being NEET. About 59% of people aged 15 – 60 who were NEET had education levels below matric in 2020, followed by those with matric at about 34%. Persons who had a tertiary qualification accounted for only 7% of NEETs.

Total number and percentage of persons aged 15-60 who are NEET, 2013 Q3 to 2020 Q3*



Total number of persons aged 15-60 years (in thousands) No. of persons aged 15-60 years who are NEET (in thousands)  

NEET rate (%

Year-on-year % ^ of persons who are NEET
2013 33764 12913 38.2%
2014 34333 13307 38.8% 3.1%
2015 34948 13103 37.5% -1.5%
2016 35526 13668 38.5% 4.3%
2017 36094 13933 38.6% 1.9%
2018 36687 14345 39.1% 3.0%
2019 37217 14876 40.0% 3.7%
2020 37736 16696 44.2% 12.2%

Source: Statistics South Africa, Quarterly Labour Force Survey Nesstar, calculations by Authors.

Note: Due to rounding, numbers do not necessarily add up to totals

In the past, South African higher education institutions were shaped by social, political, race, gender, institutional and spatial nature. Some of the recent transformative initiatives have enabled the country to redefine the goals of higher education, policy formulation, and reconfigure the institutional landscape.

In the present digital age, higher education students are seeking to join universities that not only promote learning achievements but also impart insights into future job expectations. This growing expectation for job insights is propelling the need for data and analytics software that can uncover the gap existing between acquired skills and careers. Understanding this gap promotes pre-employment skills and competency for future jobs. An increase in the number of candidates with apt skills can fulfill job requirements and prevent job losses.

Since the outbreak of COVID 2019, the workforce in South Africa has decreased from 16.4 million during the first quarter of 2020 to 14.1 million recently. Higher education institutions need to acknowledge and respond to this fall in number by including skill development and training modules in the students’ curriculum.

As they respond to challenges in this manner, it is necessary that higher education institutions obtain an insight into the labor market. This approach will enable universities to train students in South Africa and meet industry demand for engineers, scientists, health professionals, researchers, and technicians for the future.

Recommendations towards improving educational standards

Recruiters express dissatisfaction about how deficient many graduates are in basic skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving.

Tawhid Nawaz, the World Bank Director for Human Development in Africa, quotes, “Essentially, young people can take advantage of economic opportunities only if they have the right knowledge and skills.”

How can the higher education sector impart the right knowledge and skills? To demonstrate this better, let’s look at how the inclusion of labor market insights can improve the skills of medical students and the overall performance of the healthcare sector in South Africa.

The essential element of any healthcare system is human resources for health (HRFH). Education is one of the prime factors that shape human resources. As a result, it is necessary to invest in training modules for medical students to impart the skills that medical recruiters want. But how do we know what the medical recruiters expect and what skills students need to meet those expectations? This is where workforce or labor analytics tools come into the picture. These tools can educate students and staff on labor market information, show the links between acquired skills and careers, provide data on in-demand careers, and employment information.

Likewise, the use of labor analytics tools can improve the quality of education not only for medical students but also for students in other departments of higher education. Such platforms allow students to think through the competitiveness and earning potential of jobs so they may decide whether to continue in their area of interest or not. It motivates them to stay the course or take new directions depending on the changing preferences. Teachers and professors also benefit from the daily labor market data to develop programs that are based on trending skills.

So then, what should be the next step?

McKinsey states that “there will be a demand for an additional 1.7 million employees with higher education by 2030 and unless South Africa’s graduate conversion rate improves, much of that demand will go unmet – resulting in a serious skills shortfall across the economy”.

In addition, the unemployment rate in South Africa has increased to 32.5% in the fourth quarter of 2020 from 30.8% in the previous period.

In this regard, it is critical that all stakeholders such as development partners, academia, governments, and the private sector come together to revolutionize pre-employment skills through digitalization. Gaining occupation insights is an important part of this process.

As per McKinsey, “digitization could result in a net gain of more than 1 million jobs by 2030”.

Acknowledging this impact of revolutionizing skills will encourage top educators of the country to invest in and modernize South Africa’s higher education.