Youth unemployment: Statistics & solutions

Labour-force statistics indicate that the official unemployment rate in South Africa rose to 29% in the second quarter of 2019, the highest in a decade. At a recent seminar, researchers from the HSRC and World Bank focused on youth unemployment, highlighting the impact of education, skills and less tangible capital, such as networks, in finding employment. Antoinette Oosthuizen reports.

Children need adequate nutrition for brain development to reach their full potential at school. Photo: Ashraf Hendricks/GroundUp

Young people represent almost two-thirds of the total number of unemployed people in South Africa. Of the total number of those under 35, a staggering 40% do not work, but are also not studying or receiving vocational training. Experts classify them under the acronym NEET - ‘not in employment, education or training’. But, while education plays a crucial role in someone’s chances to be employed, even graduates are also not spared the humiliation of not finding a job, according to Statistics South Africa’s quarterly labour force survey.

In June 2019, the HSRC and the World Bank hosted a dialogue, Envisaging skilled futures for South African youth, to look at this crisis. Participants presented on education and human capital development, graduate outcomes, skills development and practical interventions to tackle youth unemployment.


A human capital index: South Africa is not preparing its youth for the labour market

The World Bank’s human capital index measures the amount of human capital that a child born today can expect to attain by age 18, given the impact of health and education in their country.

The combination of survival, schooling and health determines future productivity and the score is relative to what they could achieve, were they to receive full education, learn 100% of the time, go to school, and be healthy, explained World Bank economist Alexandra Posarac at the dialogue.

South Africa scored 41% on the index, placing it 126th out of 157 countries. This means a child born today in South Africa would be 41% as productive as they could be under complete health and education.

Globally, 56% of children live in countries that scored below 50% on the index, but South Africa’s score was low compared to its poorer peers. Many countries with lower GDP per capita actually scored a higher human capital index rating than South Africa.


In South Africa, 27% of children under the age of 5 years have stunted growth. Only a few countries of similar income have such high stunting rates. South Africa’s rate of progress in terms of reducing stunting is also below several countries in the region.

Inadequate nutrition has an impact on brain development, which may hinder a child reaching its full potential at school and in the workplace, said Paul Noumba Um, the World Bank’s country director for South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

“Such a rate of stunting is not normal in the 21st century in a high middle-income country,” he said.


Approximately 4% of children will die before their 5th birthdays, said Posarac.

“One can argue that 96 out of 100 will survive, but 4% is a lot. In many countries at South Africa’s level of development, child mortality is less than 1%. However, our progress in reducing child mortality has been better than the average in Africa.”

Furthermore, of people now aged 15 years, 32% will probably die before their 60th birthday. Key causes of premature mortality among adults in South Africa include violence, in addition to HIV and tuberculosis, she said.

Education and learning outcomes

The human capital index showed that a South African child who starts school at age 4 can expect to complete 9.3 years of school by their 18th birthday. “This is extremely low; it should be 13 years,” said Posarac. “It indicates [that] a lot of kids are dropping out before they complete the full cycle of education.”

Students in South Africa also scored 343 on a scale called Harmonized Learning Outcomes, where 625 represents advanced learning attainment and 300 represents minimum attainment. When researchers factored in what children actually learn, their expected years of schooling declined by a further 4 years (from 9.3 to 5.1).

Not a budget problem

Receiving an inadequate education is a “life penalty”, depriving children of many future opportunities, said Um. “Since democracy in 1994, South Africa has achieved almost universal access to basic education, with public spending on education accounting for 6.1% of GDP in 2017. Access to health services has also been significantly expanded, representing 10% of GDP.”

The problem is not the size of the budget allocated by the government. Many countries have spent less on education and health and yet scored much better on the human-capital index. “South Africa needs to take a hard look at the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending,” said Um. The index shows South Africa is not preparing its youth for the labour market. Tackling the human-capital crisis requires commitments from households, communities, the private sector and government leaders, he said.

Starting early

According to Posarac, the main challenge facing the South African education system is the low level of learning during early school years.

These are some of the World Bank's recommendations:
  • Improve the quality of Grade R teaching in poorer schools with better and more learning materials and infrastructure upgrades. Existing teachers need training and support. The quality of education and children’s cognitive, social and emotional development also needs to be monitored.
  • Teachers should be better skilled to teach reading in the foundation phase. Their content knowledge and pedagogical skills, particularly in African languages need to be improved through better initial training at universities and in-service training of current teachers. “Reading is a crucial foundational skill and the most important determinant of what happens later on with learning outcomes,” said Posarac.
  • Ensure an accountability mechanism, for example, whereby principals are incentivised to play a key role in instructional leadership and classroom monitoring.
  • Improve the school climate, which should be safe and nurturing with few staff or student attendance issues.