Fixing the STEM skills shortage in South Africa

Clare Hopping

Monday 28 August 2017

The future is bright for South Africa. However, for continued growth, it needs to bring more of its workforce into the 21st century and attend to their current lack of STEM skills.

South Africa is the second largest economy in Africa, behind Nigeria, and it’s climbing the continent’s blooming tech ladder. However, for all the positives, there is an underlying air of uncertainty brought about by a dearth of talent in the STEM fields, and a general lack of key skills to build its future.

Around 60 per cent of the country’s unemployed don’t even have a grade 12 certificate, and those seeking further education are gravitating towards business, economics and social science, eschewing computing, engineering, health and natural science – leaving a big hole in the country’s skills reserve.

South Africans continuing their educations are also steering clear of the private sector, preferring instead to seek out public sector employment.

Time and tide waits for no man

The Fourth Industrial Revolution will wait for no one, and with an estimated five million jobs predicted to be lost worldwide to automation and technological advancement, changes must be made and current plans expanded to ensure the country fulfils its potential. But new jobs will also be created. Yet due to the nature of technological growth, it’s likely they will only be open to those who have the education and skill set to adequately perform them.

Many businesses have taken warnings about the rapidly shifting job market seriously. The current course of action – to re-skill employees – has been met with approval by industry leaders, with the decision to embrace long-termism also embraced.

It is estimated that by 2020, as many as 80 per cent of all future jobs will require a STEM education, and the South African government has begun work on solving its shortfall, using programmes to reach out to the nation’s young, in both school and downtime, and encourage them into the sciences and engineering.

Being the best team means embracing all of your players

Women of all ages are underrepresented in the STEM fields. Worldwide, only around 10 per cent of women report any interest in STEM careers, which has led to a predominantly male workforce.

Globally, only 14 per cent of the STEM workforce consists of females, and only 7 per cent in South Africa. With this in mind, efforts are being made by both the government and private sector firms to increase the profile of STEM fields among women, which in turn will allow the workforce to access a wealth of untapped potential – and boost South Africa’s gender equality in the process.

An extensive report funded by the government’s Department of Higher Education and Training has also made key findings and issued concise advice on how to best tackle the current problems.

One of the suggestions made in the report was that governmental education plans and targets should be immediately reviewed to increase the number of STEM students enrolling in universities from 30 per cent to 35 per cent, with special focus given to engineering and healthcare.

Other areas of concern have also been earmarked by researchers, such as the low levels of general education found among both the employed and unemployed alike.

Raising the STEM profile in our educational institutions

In addition to using Skills Education Training Authorities (SETAs) to raise the standard of education, it has been suggested that a concerted effort to bring more education professionals into schools must be made, particularly mathematics and science teachers, and ECD professionals.

Hands-on, practical learning in schools should also be increased, allowing young people readier access to the more engaging aspects of the STEM fields, and efforts should also be made to better align educational opportunities with the labour market.

It was also suggested that South Africa look to partners around the world for talent and inspiration by offering apprenticeships and attractive business opportunities to foreign talent.

With a current unemployment rate of 27 per cent, there are undoubtedly many problems to solve in relation to South Africa’s labour market, but our increasingly automated, interconnected world dictates that our STEM skills shortage should take priority.

Money spent on re-arming the nation’s young and old with useful and versatile skills will do much to improve both the people and the economy that they power, and money invested will certainly be recouped in the future, once South Africa has taken its place among the world’s leading economies.