South Africa experiences both skills shortages and graduate un- and underemployment in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) areas. Workplaces require first-time employees to demonstrate work experience before they are employed. Programmes like the state-funded National Youth Service (NYS) programme are important in bridging the divide between graduates and the workplace.

The Department of Science and Technology’s (DST) NYS model incorporates three dimensions: service, individual development through learning and meaningful exit opportunities. The model is based on the idea that young people require interventions that address the personal, social and economic aspects of their lives in a holistic manner. The programme provides work placement for unemployed science graduates at science centres, schools and other science promotion organisations across South Africa. As part of the programme, participants gain work experience related to science awareness and have the opportunity to attend additional training related to their work.

The DST’s NYS programme is an example of the government playing an interventionist role in attempting to address a situation arising from an inhospitable labour market for STEM graduates. Since its inception in 2007, and the first intake of participants in 2008, the programme has provided Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) workplace experience to over 1 600 people.

The NYS was implemented across all nine provinces. Between 2008 and 2011 the programme was co-ordinated by the National Science and Technology Forum (NSTF). This part of the programme was evaluated retrospectively by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Since 2012 the co-ordination of the programme has been overseen by the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA). For the 2012 – 2017 period, the HSRC contacted the participants in the year of entry into the NYS and then for 2 subsequent years. In the study we aimed to determine the educational and employment pathways into and out of the programme for the respondents. Of the 1603 participants, 1113 were contacted at least once by the HSRC. Of these respondents, 551 were interviewed a year later and 202 two years later

The study found that those accessing the programme were largely Black African individuals from less affluent backgrounds. While the academic performance exhibited in grade 12 was not outstanding, the study showed that respondents did access and succeed in university programmes. The qualification profile of NYS participants was such that: 26% completed a diploma, and 74% a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Participants graduated from all major South African tertiary institutions. The majority of participants graduated with qualifications in the areas of chemistry, engineering, health sciences and environmental sciences.

 

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Respondents accessing the NYS followed two distinct pathways into the programme. The first of these pathways is a set of smooth educational transitions and then to the NYS (3% of the respondents). In addition 30% of respondents were studying directly before entering the programme. This may be in contradiction to the aim of the NYS programme, as it is providing work experience to graduates who may not actually face unemployment. In the second pathway, respondents exhibited interrupted pathways, moving in and out of education and employment in an unpredictable fashion before accessing the NYS. Ninety-seven per cent of the respondents reported taking this second pathway.

After participation in the programme 52% of respondents went directly into work; 14% into work and studying and 20% into further studies, while 27% of NYS graduates had not found employment. However, 42% of the respondents considered themselves in low-ranked positions, i.e. under-employed. Furthermore, 34% of participants pursued further studies.

Since 2013 the respondents have been asked about their attitudes to volunteerism to assess whether the programme is meeting the goal of inculcating a spirit of volunteerism in participants. On average, the attitudes were positive, however the lower percentages of respondents who felt that the country has given them the best opportunities may be an indication of the disillusionment of the graduates with the labour market.

 

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The aims of the programme are mostly achieved, however, over a third of respondents were not from groups specifically targeted by the programme. The NYS does, nevertheless, act as a mechanism that allows the most disadvantaged groups – with the least social capital – access to labour market networks to gain this experience and thereafter access the appropriate job opportunities. In doing so, this programme has contributed to increasing the pool of STEM graduates and while there is a concern of under-employment, it does enhance the STEM Human Capital in the country.  Although the programme has reached approximately 1 600 graduates since its inception, this is a small number over a 10-year period: around 160 per year. For the programme to actively and effectively contribute towards strengthening STEM in the country, it needs to target a greater number of participants. The selection of participants should also be closer in line with the goals of the programme, thereby requiring the majority of participants to be unemployed STEM graduates, or for the purview of the programme to expand to include those in STEM fields that display potential for succeeding and leading in STEM fields.

The full report Juan, A., Hannan, S., Zulu, N. and Reddy, V. (2018). The DST National Youth Service: Work experience for unemployed science graduates. 10 year-commemorative report (2007-2017). Report to the Department of Science and Technology. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council is available here.

 

Authors: Andrea Juan, Research Specialist 
                Educations and Skills Development research programme of the HSRC
                 Ncamisile Zulu, Researcher
                 Educations and Skills Development research programme of the HSRC