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Isabel van Gend | 17 June 2024

The South African government recently published a revised critical skills list. This register of 142 occupations includes those skills the government considers to be critically needed in the country and fundamental to stimulate economic growth and development.

Compiled after extensive engagement between government departments, academic institutions, professional bodies and businesses, the intention of the critical skills list is to attract highly qualified foreign nationals to work in South Africa and fill the gaps in those listed occupations.

But, while the focus is on foreign nationals, these critical skills also provide work and study opportunities for South Africans. Learners and their parents, job seekers, educators and employers all need to be aware of these skills shortages, as they make decisions about career paths, education resources and hiring strategies.

The country’s official unemployment rate stands at 32.6% – the highest in the world, according to the World Bank. But to ensure that we build the skills base that South Africa so desperately needs, we can’t afford to focus on current job seekers. Learners in Grade 9 or preferably those even younger, must be guided in taking the right subjects to increase their opportunity to secure employment after leaving university.

For a significant number of the occupations on the critical skills list, you need a background in maths and physical science. However, these subjects are perceived as difficult or having no tangible value in the real world, and so they are avoided by learners. In marginalised schools, if there are 250 Grade 12s, as few as 6-25 take physical science up to matric level. The percentage of learners in rural areas choosing physical science is even less than in urban areas, while some schools are phasing out maths and physical science completely, because of the low uptake by pupils and the pressure on schools to achieve pass rates.

What many learners and parents are failing to realise is that maths and physical science are gateway subjects that can have a significant impact on what a learner can apply to study at university – and their future job prospects. In addition, the country needs skills in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) or it risks being left behind by all the other nations progressing with their Fourth Industrial Revolution initiatives.


One of our missions at Nelson Mandela University is to create awareness of non-traditional STEM careers and provide support to learners and educators. By helping to promote and develop critical maths and physical science skills, our goal is to ultimately increase the number of learners who qualify to study science and technology in the Eastern Cape.

Started 14 years ago, and sponsored by Sanral, STEM in ACTION is an education support programme within the Faculty of Engineering, the Built Environment and Technology, where learners and educators are taught by Mandela University facilitators, in laboratory sessions at our Missionvale Campus.

We believe that you learn most effectively when more than one sense is involved, and so we take a “hands-on, brains-on” approach to learning. By using practical activities, you create a concrete experience for a very abstract subject. By experiencing science first-hand, our aim is to excite learners, make the subject memorable and motivate learners to start considering possible STEM career paths.

STEM in ACTION includes a variety of education support projects including the Selected Learner Project, the Selected Schools Project, and Educator Development. The university works with marginalised but functional schools in the Nelson Mandela Bay metropole, transporting learners to and from the campus, and providing a light meal.

With the Selected Learner Project (SLP), Grade 10 and 11 learners who achieve 65% or more in physical science and maths and have the potential to study for a degree in engineering are chosen. Learners take part in experiments that they would not have at their own schools, including exposure to coding and programming interventions.

With the Selected Schools Project (SSP), schools in the metro are carefully chosen and invited to the university where they have access to sophisticated equipment to be able to perform curriculum-aligned experiments for Grades 8-12 in physical science. Selected learners are also identified and provided with the opportunity to attend extra weekly classes, where the most problematic physical science concepts are retaught.

For many learners, there is immense pressure from their parents to enter the accounting, legal or medical fields, as these are perceived as careers where you make enough money to take care of your entire family. The intention of the SLP and SSP programmes is to inform the learners about non-traditional careers in the STEM fields and empower them to apply for these degrees.

Transforming education begins with teaching teachers

Learners come into the programmes and then leave. If you want to make more impact, you need to focus on teachers.

Nelson Mandela University is one of six South African universities that form part of the University of the Free State (UFS) Collaboration. UFS has developed two programmes, Family Maths and Key Concepts in Science, that are being introduced to schools in the metro. The university also trains facilitators to teach teachers.

Every year an average of 37 Grade 8 and 9 teachers are selected and exposed to teaching, learning and laboratory skills that they can then apply at their own schools. In addition, they are supplied with worksheets, resources, and equipment, to again reinforce the hands-on, brains-on teaching approach. It’s the fourth year that Mandela University has partnered with UFS, and the programme has been so successful that it is being expanded to areas outside of the metro such as Makhanda (Grahamstown) and Graaff-Reinet.

STEM in ACTION has been running since 2010 and while the feedback from schools and learners is all resoundingly positive, its influence is a drop in the unemployment ocean. The impact on learners is dependent on numerous factors, including how motivated the learners are and how much support they get at home. Hardworking students with potential, who have a strong support network, will feel more confident in their own abilities, and can excel in physical science or maths.

If a learner has a natural aptitude for these subjects, we encourage them to consider STEM careers as their chances of employment are far greater, and with it the ability to financially support themselves and their family. But it takes a team effort to inspire learners and to be the anchor they need to make good choices for themselves, their futures and that of the country.

‘Disclaimer - The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the BEE CHAMBER’.


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