The education myth: Why degrees won’t solve unemployment – Woode-Smith

Nicholas Woode-Smith argues that the notion of education as a cure-all for South Africa’s economic woes is misleading and overly simplistic. He highlights that while education is crucial, it often fails to equip students with practical skills and real-world applicability. Schools and universities frequently push a narrow path to success, neglecting alternative routes such as trade skills, apprenticeships, and creative careers. More critically, Woode-Smith contends that South Africa’s stringent labor laws and over-regulation deter businesses from hiring, exacerbating unemployment. To truly address joblessness, he advocates for a more liberalized economy that lowers the cost and risk of employment, making it easier for businesses to hire and for South Africans to secure jobs.

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By Nicholas Woode-Smith*

Education is not the silver bullet that will solve all of South Africa’s problems. It is too often pushed in the media, amongst politicians, and in schools themselves that the answer to poverty, unemployment and endemic lack of economic growth is more education. This is an overly simplistic notion that provides false hope to countless children, while not actually solving the real causes of joblessness in SA.

Education is important; that much is certain. Individuals need skills in order to find a role in the economy. Some skills will equip them to fill higher paying roles. Yet, schools often push the wrong skills and give bad advice to their students, pushing all students towards a singular, universal roadmap of how to be successful.

This produces many students who can’t cope with this singular vision dropping out or falling off the train, often giving up. Because a single narrative is pushed, these kids don’t realise that failing at one stringent requirement for success doesn’t mean they don’t have other options.

Schools need to stop pushing this idea that students need to go to university to get a job. First, this is patently false. Practical skills and trades that can be learnt at trade schools, tech, apprenticeships or even self-taught can be highly lucrative.

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Additionally, universities do not equip creative individuals to pursue careers in music, art or writing. All that a university degree in any of those subjects will help you with is to lecture those subjects. To pursue a successful career in writing I had to unlearn what university taught me.

Second, and very importantly, a university degree does not guarantee a job. Schools push people to go to university, but do not prepare students to pick the right subject for themselves or the job market. Far too many people are pushed into becoming the generic lawyer, engineer or medical doctor, without any care being paid to the skillset or personality of the individual.

Many students who are pushed into becoming professionals would be far better served studying more generally applicable degrees in the commerce faculty, which can be applied to many roles in the corporate environment. Undecided Matriculants shouldn’t be pushed into studying strenuous degrees that they don’t understand when they could perform far better in a general degree that opens them up for employment in many fields.

Equipping students with a generalised degree, especially when they aren’t sure what they want to do in life, becomes doubly important when we recall that South Africa’s job market is in constant flux. Civil Engineering is pushed as a lucrative career by many schools, but with this country’s rough construction industry and lack of development, it has become a risky career that requires intensive study.

The real solution to unemployment

Even if schools and universities equip students to make better decisions about what they study or what career they pursue after school, unemployment still won’t be solved. While lack of skills is a problem, the real issue in South Africa is that labour laws hold back businesses from employing as many individuals as possible.

With race quotas, stringent labour regulations, and over-unionisation, it is a huge risk for a business to employ anyone. If an individual ends up being inadequate at their job, a business will have a very hard time firing them. And if unions want to disrupt an entire industry based on irrelevant political matters, they can without repercussion.

Unemployment will not be solved while businesses are actively punished for wanting to recruit employees. Reduce the cost of employees, and the risk attached to taking a chance on youthful, unproven workers, and business will begin to solve unemployment.

It’s that simple. While South Africa is unfriendly to business, qualified individuals will find greener pastures elsewhere or remain jobless. If we liberalise our economy to make it easier to hire and fire, with employer and employee entering into mutually beneficial agreements, South Africans of all skill-levels will begin to find it easier to enter employment. And we will all benefit as a result.

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*Nicholas Woode-Smith is a political analyst, economic historian, and author. He is an associate of the Free Market Foundation and writes in his personal capacity.