Tragedy of SA youth who put education first

24 April 2016 - 02:00 By SABELO SKITI

When Mfuneko Nomvalo left home to study civil engineering, he hoped never to return to Umzimkhulu in KwaZulu-Natal. But three years later he was back - with a national diploma from Mangosuthu University of Technology, and no job.

"It's been five years since I graduated, but finding work has been the hardest thing for me.

"I thought I had left and progressed in life," said the 25-year-old.

"I've worked 18 months on contract on local construction jobs and it's not what I thought it would be like. Sitting at home with nothing ... it's hopeless."

Nomvalo is one of thousands of graduates wondering if all the money and hard work spent on a tertiary education are worth it.

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This week, Stats SA released findings on the 2009-14 social profile of young South Africans. It paints a startling picture of young people losing the battle against unemployment, crime, and rising mortality rates.

The jobless rate among those aged 15 to 35 grew from 34.2% in 2009 to 35.9% in 2014.

Of South Africa's five million unemployed people, 3.5million are under 35 - 175,000 are graduates.

Economist Dawie Roodt says the situation will only worsen.

"South Africa's economy will take a long time to prosper and that is the reality graduates are going to face," he told a group of graduates last week.

"Our potential workforce should be driving the economy at a ferocious pace, but a sluggish economy, inadequate education and skills and bad labour legislation mean the country is losing out on opportunities," he told Sunday Times this week.

"Any country gets only one shot to use its demographic dividend and once it passes it's gone forever.

"If we can put the right policies in place, and get the correct labour legislation and relations, it is possible to grow our economy by up to 8% and 9%," said Roodt.

Labour economist and Prophet Analytics director Loane Sharp said many graduates had qualifications that did not match the economy's requirements.

"There are 859,000 vacancies in the private sector, and [they] could be immediately filled if only the skills were available. About two-thirds ... are in management. The remaining third are mostly in the professions."

For Nomvalo, studying engineering was an obvious choice after he was told in high school there was a demand for it .

As a National Student Financial Aid Scheme beneficiary he worked extra hard to pass well and receive a partial bursary.

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''But now it's been so long that the interest charges mean I have to pay back virtually 100% of the loan. It makes me depressed just thinking about it."

Ground zero for young unemployed graduates has to be the Fetakgomo local municipality in the Sekhukhune district of Limpopo, where a third of graduates are unemployed.

Evans Shaku, founder and project manager of the Fetakgomo Youth Brigade, said 30 mining companies, including giants like Anglo American and Xstrata, operated in the area.

"Most of our graduates here studied courses like human resources, public relations, BA, and these are not the skills required here. As a result, most of the people working at the mines are not from around here."

With the help of the Services sector education and training authority, the body has placed 190 candidates into internships, learnerships and apprenticeships in Limpopo and Gauteng.

Statistician-general Pali Lehohla said the data released this week suggested "targeting youth had missed completely and our youth is socially excluded". Young people were in a peculiar situation where their only hope was to make it to pension age for more social support to kick in.

sub_head_start Knocking on a door that never seems to open sub_head_end

• Chemical engineer Ruan Pretorius, 25, flew out of Johannesburg this week, headed for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he has secured a six-month contract on a mine. Finding a job was a relief after sending out more than 100 applications since graduating in 2013 from North West University."I got lucky with this job in the Congo, but it's only for six months. I thought that by studying chemical engineering I would be guaranteed a job. I was wrong," he said.

Adolf Kleynhans, 25, of Port Elizabeth, has a chemical engineering degree from North West University but works in agriculture.

"It's impossible to find work in my field in South Africa. Everyone wants experience."

 

Instead, Kleynhans does marketing for a small agricultural company in Cradock. "It's not like I'm starving and there are other people who have it far worse than me, but it's frustrating because we have worked so hard and my parents paid all this money."

Ncumisa Ntoyi, 25, of Bloemfontein, graduated with a degree in agriculture from the University of the Free State in 2014. "I had an internship with the Department of Public Works, but it ended last month. It's so frustrating," she said.

Ntoyi said her grandmother had scrimped and saved to pay her fees. "I have no parents. And now we have no money. We are struggling. I took a loan for my honours but I didn't graduate because I couldn't pay the rest of it," she said.

Kagisho Phala, 27, of Ga-Nchabeleng in Limpopo, studied electrical engineering and graduated from Sekhukhune TVET (Technical Vocational Education and Training) College in 2009.

For more than two years he struggled to find work as an electrician. In 2011, he was employed as a temporary maths and science teacher, "but it wasn't what I wanted to do". He has now been accepted into an electrical apprenticeship programme.

"It was hard not to be demoralised. I'll just keep on applying," he said.

Khomotso Ramaila, 26, who lives in Pretoria, studied human resources through Unisa and graduated in 2014.

"I am living with my dad and looking for a job. I don't know how many e-mails I sent. Maybe 20 a week for jobs, but only three or four will call you for an interview.

It's very frustrating. You go and study with the hopes of finding a job. But we sit at home for three years with no job." She said she had been applying for jobs all over the country. "I think it's corruption. It's all about who you know. It's very tough. I go to interviews, but I know they already have people they want for those jobs."

• Although he has not been unemployed for long, 22-year-old Mzekelo Mathe, who lives in Chesterville near Durban, would like nothing more than to put into practice what he learnt during his civil engineering studies at the Durban University of Technology. He has a national diploma, but has not found employment since he graduated last year.

"I've volunteered as a consulting engineer for a consulting company and at a construction site to get experience. But the economy right now is not good, and it looks as if no one is employing."

 

sub_head_start Engineers complain about lack of state projects sub_head_end

A slowdown in government infrastructure projects is slashing the number of jobs available for young civil engineers, says the South African Institution of Civil Engineering.

Marie Ashpole, a spokeswoman for the body, said the industry was in a serious situation .

"Since last year, a number of big companies have had to retrench substantial numbers of civil engineering practitioners due to a lack of infrastructure projects. This could have been addressed had government rolled out the envisaged infrastructure projects of R870-billion announced every year since 2011," she said.

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The institution's CEO, Manglin Pillay, said experienced engineers should be employed at all tiers of government to ensure that money budgeted for infrastructure was spent.

"Once projects are rolled out, the chances of employment for newly qualified and young graduates would increase drastically," said Pillay.

"At the moment the civil engineering industry finds itself in a situation where it cannot even maintain the employment status quo, as it is fighting for survival.

"Thus employment of inexperienced young graduates is not an option as they would require experienced engineers to mentor them, which the companies cannot afford."

Last month, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande was quoted as saying South Africa still had a big shortage of engineers. He said that between 2009 and 2014 the government had invested R1-trillion in infrastructure alone, the single largest amount in any five-year period in South African history.

"Government still intends to invest more," he said, which meant more engineers would be needed.

A report by the Engineering Council of South Africa indicates that the country has one engineer per 2600 people. Engineering ranks second on the government's draft priority scarce skills list.

The government says it has not been able to attract experienced, highly qualified civil engineers, but a recent survey of engineers by the Institution of Civil Engineering found that 68% were willing to work in the public sector. Half said they were willing to work in rural areas.

skitis@sundaytimes.co.za, laganparsadm@sundaytimes.co.za

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