Bolstering the skills of young people – the key to South Africa's economic growth

As a young data developer responsible for mining and analysing the administrative tax data provided to researchers through the SA-TIED programme, I am acutely aware of the economic challenges faced by the average South African, particularly young people. 

According to recent data from Statistics South Africa, the official youth unemployment rate was around 45.5% as of the first quarter of 2024. This is not just a number; it represents countless young lives affected by the slow pace of economic growth limiting their employment opportunities. To put this into perspective, the overall unemployment rate in South Africa during the same period was 33%. This means that young people face significantly higher unemployment rates compared to the general population. During a recent visit to a local community centre, I met a young man who had been searching for a job for over two years and got a glimpse of one of the human stories behind these statistics. Despite having a Bachelor of Commerce in Business Management, he struggled to find work because his skills did not correspond to the demands of the labour market. His story is not unique; it highlights the urgent need for a revision of the curriculum in our educational institutions to better align skills with market needs. While programmes like Youth Employment Service (YES) South Africa, which provides 12-month work experiences for unemployed young people, help bridge the gap between education and employment, more needs to be done.

The role of government policies

First, I believe the government can play a more strategic role in revising school curriculums to meet current market demands by developing education policies that mandate alignment with industry needs. Engaging with various stakeholders, including industry leaders and educational experts, to gather insights into required skills and competencies could be transformative if implemented efficiently. The Department of Basic Education, the Department of Higher Education and Training, and provincial education departments could allocate funding and resources to support curriculum development and implementation, including teacher training and new educational materials. Regulatory oversight would ensure the effectiveness of these changes, while incentive programs could encourage academic institutions to adopt and maintain market-aligned curricula.

South Africa has adopted aspects of a competency-based curriculum (CBC), particularly in vocational and technical education. For instance, the National Curriculum Statement (NCS) incorporates elements of competency-based approaches to ensure that students acquire skills for the workforce, focusing on practical skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving abilities. However, the full implementation of CBC across all educational levels is still in progress, with ongoing efforts to integrate these methodologies more comprehensively.

Several countries have successfully revised their educational curricula to better align with market demands. In the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, investments have been made to integrate soft skills and technical training, preparing students for industry 4.0 through continuous curriculum updates and industry partnerships. In Saudi Arabia, specifically, the Ministry of Education has introduced new pathways in secondary education, with a strong emphasis on critical thinking and digital literacy. These changes aim to better equip students for higher education and the workforce. The shift to a three-semester academic year has increased the number of teaching days, giving students more opportunities to develop their skills. This reform is part of the broader Vision 2030 initiative, which targets key sectors like ICT, aerospace, and biotechnology, underscoring the importance of an education system that supports these fields. 

Additionally, the government has partnered with international e-learning platforms like Coursera, EdX, and Udemy to provide specialized education and training programmes, further enhancing the skills and capabilities of students. Similarly, Kenya has implemented the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) initiative, focusing on practical skills and competencies to meet the evolving needs of its economy.By drawing lessons from these examples, South Africa can better prepare its workforce for emerging industries and address the skills gaps in key sectors of the economy.

Exploring sectors with growth potential

Several sectors—agriculture, tourism, and technology—hold potential for growth, especially for engaging youth. However, the technology sector remains underutilized despite the increasing digitalization of various industries. South Africa's investment in information and communication technology is growing, but challenges such as high data costs and uneven infrastructure development impede progress. South Africa was ranked 27th out of 42 countries on the average cost of 1 GB of data in 2022, indicating a sizable barrier to widespread digital adoption.

In contrast, countries like India, Brazil, and Nigeria have successfully tapped into technology and innovation to drive economic growth. India’s emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) has resulted in a booming IT industry, making it a global leader in IT services and outsourcing. The country's focus on digital literacy and tech education has spurred a vibrant startup ecosystem, which saw substantial growth in recent years. Brazil’s investment in technology and innovation has similarly bolstered its agricultural sector, making it one of the world leaders in agritech, which enhances productivity and sustainability. In Nigeria, initiatives to improve STEM education and support tech startups have led to a thriving tech scene, contributing significantly to economic development and job creation. Having a supportive environment for tech innovation can create jobs for young people, help them develop digital skills, and position South Africa as a leader in the digital economy.

Lastly, empowering South Africa's youth with the necessary skills is also important for economic growth and fostering social stability. Recent data shows that many young people are in South African prisons. Providing relevant skills and an entry into the labour market reduces their likelihood of turning to crime. By aligning education and skills training with market needs, we ensure that we have a well-educated, skilled workforce that invests in human capital, and enhances individual prospects.


Simcengile Ngoto is a data developer in the SA-TIED programme and holds master’s degree in statistical science with specialization in data science. 

The views expressed in this piece are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Institute or the United Nations University, nor the programme/project donors.