As a recruiter my head boggles at South Africa’s paradox of escalating unemployment and the chronic skills shortages my clients experience daily. As a qualified teacher my heart aches to think that we’re going to continue to produce generations of unemployable individuals if we do not radically transform what and how we teach.

Yesterday’s announcement of the unemployment rate hitting a 14-year high at 27.7% should not have surprised anyone but it should be creating grave concerns in everyone. A closer inspection of the statistics is what is most worrying, in particular when one focuses on the issues relating to education.

Our young population should be an asset not a liability

With a rapidly ageing population in most “developed” countries South Africa’s young population should be an enormous advantage. We should be capitalising on the myriad of opportunities to employ our young people in the jobs that today’s technologically advanced and digitally connected world allows to be done ‘offshore’ or ‘outsourced’. Think about how India jumped onto the call centre bandwagon more than a decade ago.

Instead, our youth are, for want of a better term, a ticking time bomb, ready to explode into revolution like their Arab Spring counterparts up north. And who can blame them? For many, they have slaved away at school and even at university to still face the prospect of remaining permanently jobless.

If we want to ensure that we remain a productive and peaceful country we need to pay closer attention to how we are educating and preparing our children for the future.

Learning the wrong stuff

In an environment where there are jobs sitting empty because we struggle to find suitable skills it should be untenable that the unemployment rate amongst graduates sits at 7.3% The recent unrest at universities and the demand for free education speaks volumes about the perceived value of gaining a tertiary education. And I agree, your chances of being employed are greatly enhanced if you have a degree. But not just any degree. It would be interesting to learn what the qualifications are of those thousands of graduates who are still sitting without work…I hazard a guess that they’re not in the focus areas of engineering, IT or analytics.

It’s time for some tough decisions. I argue that we should focus our efforts on subsidising – or paying in full – the tertiary education of individuals who choose to study the skills we need: engineering, IT, nursing, teaching and others. Let’s focus on creating employable individuals who can, in turn, grow our country and our economy.

It’s all about the foundation

Just as a building with a poor foundation will eventually topple, South Africa’s youth need to have a strong foundational education to ensure their sustainable employment in the modern era. I believe that we should be shifting our thinking and focusing our resources on improving the quality of our teaching (and learning) at the very beginning of an individual’s life, rather than trying to deal with the fall-out when they emerge from 12 years of learning with an inability to access the education streams for in-demand skills. These all, for the most part, hinge on a core foundation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) understanding and ability.

Future of Work

The National Development Plan (NDP) continued to focus on pushing South African along a path that centres on the previous Industrial Revolution and the fact is that the world has moved. We’re in the Fourth Industrial revolution, otherwise referred to as the Knowledge Economy, and the types of jobs and the corresponding skills required, are fundamentally different.

Traditional employment sectors such as mining, agriculture and trade all experienced job losses in the thousands in the past quarter and are reflective of the reality that labour-intensive business is being affected by a slowing global economic growth, a shift towards cheaper labour in developing countries and automation.

To truly embrace the opportunities presented by the future world of work, South Africa is going to have go on an immediate radical transformation. The only real way that we will achieve our ultimate common goal of a more equitable and socially cohesive society is if we ensure that the majority of our citizens can be gainfully – and meaningfully – employed.

It’s time to shift focus and get STEM subjects to the top of our priority list.