Study shows race bias in employment of science graduates

If you are a white natural science graduate in South Africa, the chances are that you will find a job faster than your black and coloured counterparts. And if you graduate from more recognised or prestigious universities, you are likely to have easier access to internships and, ultimately, employment.

This is according to a study on natural science graduates in South Africa titled, ‘Pathways into the labour market and self-employment for natural science graduates’.

It was produced by the Human Sciences Research Council on behalf of the South African Council for Natural Scientific Professions (SACNASP) and released in December 2022 at the World Science Forum in Cape Town.

According to SACNASP, it has “the mandate to oversee and support natural science professionals, (while) understanding the labour market dynamics of natural scientists is a main priority.”

It indicates that the study is a pioneering effort which aims to build on the shortcomings of the national level labour market data, “to survey and provide evidence on the state of natural science graduates in the labour market”.

The study also aims to contribute towards enhancing the employment outcomes of its members as well as to contribute to a sound understanding of the profile and factors around employment, unemployment, underemployment, or inactivity of natural scientists.

An analysis of 2020 survey data on natural science graduates identified five transitions: full-time and part-time employment, self-employment, further study, and unemployment.

The study revealed that “the majority of natural science graduates successfully transition to the labour market, with a sizeable proportion moving into self-employment. Demographic, institutional, organisational and economic factors combine to influence transition outcomes.”

Who are employed?

The study found that whites “are more likely to find work within six months of graduation compared to Africans and coloureds, who, on average, spent seven to 11 months before finding first employment”.

Furthermore, employers have a bias towards graduates from specific institutions, with those from the historically white universities benefiting most.

“Main supply factors included the perceived gap between academic institutions’ curriculum and employers’ skills demands. More universities are heavy on theory and have not adequately adopted practical aspects in aligning their curriculum to support employment outcomes, especially for those from historically disadvantaged universities.”

There is a difference between institutional readiness and the capabilities of career offices to adequately support graduate development, as well as in preparing them for the world of work, says the report.

The location of the university plays a role: graduates studying in non-urban areas were slightly more likely to be unemployed when compared with those who lived in urban settings. Graduates from or living in the Western Cape and Gauteng showed stronger employment outcomes compared with other provinces.

Young graduates aged 20-34 were more likely to be in unemployment compared with older graduates aged 35-65. Most employed natural scientists are between the ages of 30 and 49.

“This is related to the need for more experience among the younger scientists, which suggests the need for more initiatives to absorb younger natural scientists into the labour force.”

The report pointed out that there are disproportionately more women scientists in the 20-34 age group. However, there is a drop of 29% in the number of female natural scientists between the 35-49 and 50-65 age cohorts, “providing evidence that women exit the profession after the age of 45”.

“This suggests that males tend to be more mobile than their female counterparts, who remain tethered to the home and are expected to fulfil other responsibilities on top of pursuing a lifelong career.”

More than 70% of natural scientists were in full-time employment, while 5% worked on a part-time basis. Furthermore, 78% of natural science graduates took less than six months after graduation to find their first job, with most (34%) finding work through responding to advertised job vacancies.

More than half of the scientists in employment are white, with about 40% African, 6% Indian or Asian and 2% coloured.

“There are more male natural scientists – 54%, relative to females at 46%.” Data from the survey of natural scientists suggest a significantly low unemployment rate of about 5%, with only 68 respondents indicating that they were unemployed. More than two-thirds (68%) of all unemployed natural scientists are below 35.

Unemployment and self-employment

The largest proportion of unemployed scientists came from the animal sciences (14%), followed by agricultural sciences and environmental sciences (12%), then the geological sciences (10%) and botanical sciences (9%). A larger proportion of 21% cited lack of appropriate work opportunities, lack of work experience (19%), and the general scarcity of jobs (12%) as the main reasons why they are unemployed.

A substantial proportion of 17% are self-employed, and this includes natural scientists working as consultants. More white males seem to navigate better through self-employment compared with other population groups. This can be attributed to their having access to people with resources as well as social networks, compared with others.

That a large proportion of scientists entering self-employment voluntarily is a positive finding, demonstrating that natural science business ventures could benefit from improved business support and development initiatives, according to the report.

Graduates with agriculture-related degrees experienced lower employability probabilities, while maths and life science graduates show a higher employment outlook.

Furthermore, due to the rapid growth in computer-related applications occupations and in the information and communication technology sector, including data science and data management, graduates from mathematics and statistics-related fields seem to have better employment opportunities than those from general science fields.

Who employs natural scientists?

The major employer of natural scientists is the private sector, with just over half of the natural scientists based there. A quarter of the graduates are employed by government, while 15% are in the higher education institutions and science councils, with the remaining 9% are employed by parastatals.

“Despite national declines in agriculture and farming, about 27% of natural scientists are employed in these sectors,” according to the research.

While graduates within the agriculture-related fields were more employable in 2013, in 2018 graduates within the ICT field have a higher probability of being employed. This is due to there being more employment opportunities in the technical and applied science fields, such as biotechnology and microbiology.

This means that graduates from the data science, artificial intelligence and deep learning fields with more numeracy applications, are becoming more employable. However, graduates from more general fields such as biology, chemistry and others are finding other employment opportunities outside the natural science fields.

“The main finding … concerns the roles of curriculum and natural science training in preparing graduates for careers in the natural science fields.” The study found that most graduates do not have the relevant soft skills needed to obtain or secure employment, as well as to facilitate collaborations with other scientists within the sector.

“The lack of these soft skills can be linked to the very technical and content-heavy nature of the curriculum, which most often does not provide time for graduates to find opportunities for practical training. This is more applicable to students from historically disadvantaged universities.”

Another possible reason could be due to the ideological gap between universities’ departments or course directors and the changing needs of employers. The report suggests that employers develop opportunities for various graduate training programmes for graduates or final-year students.

“Such programmes could be better coordinated through universities’ career and graduate development programmes. This is particularly important for natural science students and graduates from rural areas, where opportunities for work internships or volunteering are limited.”

‘Encourage an entrepreneurial mindset’

The report recommends that the training of natural scientists should encourage an entrepreneurial mindset. “Practical courses linked to becoming and succeeding as an entrepreneur need to be considered at different stages of the undergraduate and postgraduate training.

“Courses such as financial training, developing business proposals or tenders, and management skills should be developed and strengthened through practical assignments, internship placements and work-based training.”

While women dominate the unemployed sector, there is a need for stronger incentive structures and policies to support women in science professions.

“Furthermore, considering the demands of … childbearing and care-giving, employers should consider better employment and working conditions which allow women to access these jobs, but also to maintain and return to their employment after childbearing and care-giving responsibilities.”

The report adds that, as some natural science professions have been historically more male gender-inclined, more sensitisation is needed to expose and support females in studying in these fields and gaining employment.

Furthermore, higher education institutions need to do more to create opportunities for students to experience some form of internship, work-integrated learning or workplace learning as part of the curriculum, to expose students and graduates to various practical employment skills.

“A closer collaboration between universities, SACNASP and other stakeholders is necessary to inform the process of skills planning,” the report states.