Labour market report highlights need for more STEM skills

The higher education sector must produce more science, engineering and technology graduates, science and maths secondary school teachers, as well as early childhood development professionals if South Africa is to produce the kind of skills needed to encourage inclusive development.

The “improvement of education and skills levels” are among five key recommendations contained in the Skills Supply and Demand in South Africa report released last month by the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership project. Funded by the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, the research was undertaken by a consortium of research organisations led by the Human Sciences Research Council or HSRC.

Report co-author, Dr Vijay Reddy, who is executive director of the HSRC’s Education and Skills Development research programme, told University World News that analysis of the skills needed by the economy showed high demand for science and engineering qualifications from both universities and TVET – Technical and Vocational Education and Training – colleges.

“Of those who complete [their post-school qualification] there are small numbers with engineering and science qualifications. The analysis of the skills needed by the economy shows a high demand for these kinds of qualifications,” she said.

Reddy said science, engineering and technology qualifications had the advantage of being “very versatile” and graduates with these qualifications were able to work in a number of different occupations.

Low skills base

Sketching the South African skills context, the report found that the education level and skill base of the South African labour force was lower than that of many other productive economies.

“Of the employed population, 20% has a tertiary qualification, 32% has completed secondary education, and close to half of the workforce do not have a grade 12 certificate. Sixty percent of the unemployed has less than a grade 12 certificate. This translates to 11.75 million of the labour force with less than a grade 12 certificate,” the report states.

The report also shows that despite growth of the university and TVET college subsystems – since 2010 the TVET sector has been expanding at an average rate of 23% per annum, and the university sector has been expanding at an average rate of 2.1% per annum – completion rates at both universities and colleges were “less than desirable” with only 185,000 students completing their studies at university and only 78,000 graduating from the TVET sector. In 2014, there were around 1.1 million students in the university sector and 0.8 million in the TVET sector.

The report recommends that National Plan for Higher Education targets and funding should be reviewed to increase the shares of science, engineering and technology enrolments in university courses from the present 30% to 35%, especially in the areas of engineering and health professions.

It also calls for quality post-school programmes, and higher educational outcomes. “At the technician level there is an under-supply of engineering technicians and associate professionals, as well as building and construction, metal, machinery, electronic and electrical and related trades,” states the report.

There is also a need, given the high numbers of the employed and unemployed with less than a grade 12 education, for SETAs to play a role in facilitating occupationally directed programmes targeting this group, it said.

Prototype model

Reddy described the process behind compiling the report as a “massive undertaking” which represented one of the first attempts to analyse how current supply and demand for skills in South Africa interact in order to inform future skills policy.

The team took about a year to complete the work and the report went through a number of review processes. “It was reviewed by local academics as well as a person from the International Labour Organisation and the UK Commission for Employment and Skills,” said Reddy.

“We stated this was a prototype model and we will review the model before the next report on skills supply and demand. It is envisaged that such a report will be produced every two years,” she said.

Among the logistical challenges of the report was the limited availability of technical skills in the country for a study of this kind.

“We had to build our skills set,” she told University World News. Reddy’s co-authors included Mariette Visser and Fabian Arends from the HSRC, Professor Haroon Bhorat, a labour market economist based at the University of Cape Town, and Dr Marcus Powell, an international consultant.

Conceptual framework

Reddy said the team first had to develop a conceptual framework relevant to South Africa.

“We reviewed skills planning models from OECD and Asian countries, and these were not fully relevant for the South African context. Secondly, we had to find and interrogate the available data that could be used. Again, South Africa is building up its data and information systems, and we had to understand the limitations of the data,” she said.

According to Reddy a key value of the report is the fact that it was commissioned by the Department of Higher Education and Training and thus feeds directly into planning at post-school education and training centres.

“All governments must estimate what skills are needed to support economic growth. Government Outcome number five is the building of a skilled and capable workforce … In order for DHET to plan its education and training programmes, it needs to know what are the skills shortages and what skills need to be developed,” she said.

The findings from the study will assist the DHET in planning the types of enrollments at both universities and TVET colleges and will inform how resources will be directed for skills development, she said.

Labour demand and supply mismatch

The report notes that a key constraint to sustainable job creation in South Africa is the structural mismatch between labour demand and supply. As a result of this mismatch, economic growth has favoured high-skilled workers, despite the fact that the majority of the employed and the unemployed have low level skills.

Reddy said the challenge for the DHET was to support both the development of high skills and create low wage jobs and set up skills programmes to enhance the skills set of the unemployed.

Another key recommendation in the report is to improve the match between field of study and labour market destination, and ultimately draw more graduates into the private sector.

As the report notes, over half of the country’s graduates enter the community and social services sector, which is dominated by the public sector.

“These positions offer graduates a relatively good salary, job security and other social benefits, such as healthcare and pensions. Unfortunately, this is distorting the labour market and not attracting graduates to the private sector labour market. The South African private sector must review its human resource strategies to attract more graduates to the sector,” the report states.