Youth and Unemployment

A focus on education reforms is more likely to yield better outcomes for youth in the job market

By now it’s a well know fact that youth are disproportionately affected by unemployment in South Africa. The latest quarterly labour force survey results show that in the first quarter of 2015, the official unemployment rate was highest among the 15-24 age group (50%), followed by 31 per cent for  prime-adults (25 – 34 age group).

unemployment rates

Figure 1: Official unemployment rates by age, 2008 – 2015

A further look at labour market rates (unemployment rate alongside the labour absorption and labour force participation rates) by education show important links between levels of educational attainment and labour market outcomes.

In 2014, the unemployment rate for the labour force with tertiary education was much lower compared to other educational categories


  • The labour absorption rate (measures the proportion of the working age population that is employed) for 2014, revealed higher gains in employment for people with matric and more so for those with tertiary education, compared to those with below matric education levels. In the same breath, the labour force participation rate (the proportion of the working-age population that is either employed or unemployed) indicates that those with tertiary and matric qualification participated more in the economy (when compared to those lower education levels).

See: The absorption rates by education levels (2014):

  • Tertiary (77,7 per cent)
  • Matric (50,5 per cent)
  • Below Matric (32,8)

See: The labour force participation rates by education levels (2014):

  • Tertiary (87, 2)
  • Matric (68,1)
  • Below (46,7)

Source:  Statistics South Africa. (2015). Labour market dynamics in South Africa, 2014 (Rep. No. 02-11-02 (2014)). Retrieved from Statistics South Africa:

Policy responses

  • To improve labour market outcomes, particularly for young people, policy makers should focus their attention on education reforms.
  • With a tertiary qualification and or matric, chances of young people finding a job are likely to increase.
  • While South Africa has achieved the Millenium Development Goal of providing universal primary education, policy should be refocused towards secondary school completion (matric or its FET NCV equivalent). The education department should earnestly work at improving the quality of the matric qualification. See Transformation Audit on policy options for improving quality education in South Africa.
  • Gearing young people to participate productively in the economy further entails an investment in skills development. The Vocational Education and Training sector can play an important role in equipping young people with intermediary skills needed by the economy. See the latest 2014 Transformation Audit on how FET colleges can be repositioned to contribute to youth employment.


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