• Ros Nightingale

University graduates are the new cheap labour – underemployed, underpaid and underused


University graduates in South Africa are increasingly finding themselves in dead-end internships that promise to equip them with skills to make them more attractive in the labour market. Instead, they are reduced to making coffee, preparing meeting rooms, printing copies and other responsibilities that have nothing to do with harnessing their skills.

Graduate underemployment is not new, nor will it contract any time soon. In fact, it is bound to worsen as the economy declines, and with it, employment. With many people chasing few available jobs, graduates do not have the liberty to reject offers despite long-run dissatisfaction due to being underpaid and underused. Graduate underemployment is not an easy variable on which to collect data.

Underemployment is an economic term describing a condition in which people in the labour force are employed at less than full-time or regular jobs or at jobs inadequate with respect to their training, studies or economic needs. It is divided into three common categories: skilled workers in low-income jobs; skilled workers in jobs that do not fully use their skills; and part-time workers who would rather work full time.

The popular narrative commonly used by universities in an attempt to competitively market, position and attract the best students with high academic potential is the promise of almost immediate absorption into the labour market and being an active participant in the economy. The University of the Witwatersrand states that 97% of its graduates found employment within six months of graduation, while the University of Cape Town (UCT), a close competitor, claims that from their Class of 2018, 80% of graduates were “meaningfully” employed – both universities have publicly stated that data was collected through their graduate exit surveys.

UCT further states that 20% of its graduates earn more than R20,000 per month. The statistics provided by these universities provoke a lot of questions: what method of data collection was used to make these conclusive findings; what meaning can be attributed to language such as “meaningfully employed” and “finding from those employed”; and how did they audit the data so as to dismiss any latent bias towards them and their university brand? These two universities, however, are not the only two that collect such statistics or make such claims to bolster their brands.

The statistics collected by all the South African universities that conduct such studies are solely focused on the employment context. The word ‘unemployment’ in these exercises is hardly ever used, with ‘underemployment’ never used. This is of course done deliberately so as to focus the prospective student, parent and/or guardian on the brand and the benefit the prospective student can get after their tenure of studies by associating with the brand.

The Quarterly Labour Force Survey by Statistics South Africa – Quarter one of 2020 breaks down unemployment by education level as follows: 54.8% for those with less than matric; 35.4% with matric; 6.8% with tertiary qualifications not from a university; 2.3% graduates; and 0.7% classified as other. Stats SA in 2019 collected and presented youth unemployment statistics – these statistics were broken down into age group and level of study. Unemployed graduates contributed as follows for the various age groups: in the age group 15-24, graduates contributed 31% to the unemployment total of 55.2% ; in the age group 25-34, graduates contributed 12.9% to the 34.2% total; and 4.3% to the 35-64 age group with an unemployment total of 18%. Graduate unemployment is relatively lower than other educational groups, numbers that, again, do not account for underemployment.

Graduates are increasingly finding themselves in dead-end internships and learnerships. Learnerships that historically employed those with highest-level education being matric are increasingly upping their education requirement level to a bachelor’s degree. These internships and learnerships lure graduates with the promise of equipping them with skills that will make them more attractive in the labour market after the duration of their contract. They promise to give graduates an opportunity to practise under the supervision of seasoned professionals, allowing them to accumulate experience to complement their qualification and general work experience so as to understand the dynamics of a professional work environment, a transition from being a university student.

These employers boldly and routinely, from the post advertisement to the contract and induction package and orientation presentations, state that they are under no obligation to absorb the graduate when the contract expires. Some, if not most, don’t even contractually state their responsibility to equip the graduate with a skill, even though they are subsidised by the state to do so, and score BBBEE points for being training providers. This has led to graduates being reduced to making coffee, preparing meeting rooms, printing copies and other responsibilities that are detached from their purpose of employment.

Those lucky enough to get some form of training receive training that is not fit for purpose and adds little value to their future job hunt. No individual person or institution, internally or externally, monitors and regulates them, and as such, leaves these graduates to fend for themselves in the workspace.

Some of these graduates hold critical qualifications in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and finance-related qualifications. They hold qualifications in governance, social work, psychology and other qualifications needed by the public and private sectors to advance the country economically and socially. Some are postgraduates (master’s graduates specifically) who have a proven record in research – idling, underused or not used at all for 12 to 24 months while collecting a stipend or salary at every payment cycle.   

There are many instances of graduates who have voluntarily taken up opportunities that don’t require a graduate qualification, that merely require any qualification plus an add-on such as the postgraduate certificate in education to score a teaching job, a language-competency test certificate to secure an English instructor job in China, and so forth. Survival is the primary and sole driving force.

It is challenging to accurately track and quantify graduate underemployment, but what is harder is getting a university or any other agency to develop the incentive to do so, or at least speak about it. Also challenging is that underemployment can be voluntary in some cases, but again, a figure cannot be attached.

South African universities produce young, bright minds that if properly trained using the existing schemes and progressive legislation such as the Employment Equity Act (notably section 20, subsection 3 and section 4) can work to the benefit of the country, curb the brain drain, the import of brains. 

Bongani Mahlangu is a PhD Economics candidate at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is a National Executive Committee member of the South African Union of Students. He writes in his personal capacity.


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