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Picture: 123RF/HASLOO
Picture: 123RF/HASLOO

I recently accompanied my 12-year-old son to an open day event hosted by a high school in Johannesburg looking to attract grade 7 pupils from nearby primary schools to enrol with it next year.  

My son became interested in the event after a representative from the high school made a marketing pitch to his class at his current school. At the event we were taken through the school’s academic programme, extramural activities and facilities such as science and computer labs, library, hall, sports grounds and swimming pool.   

I was impressed by the school’s staff, guides and exhibitors, who were friendly and professional. But then, after we had gone through exhibitions for robotics, physical sciences and life sciences, I noticed a trend that bothered me, and I asked my son whether he had spotted anything odd.  

He responded that he had not seen anything strange. I then brought to his attention that I had not seen a single black African pupil participating in the three exhibitions we had attended so far. His eyes popped out when he realised that he too had not seen one.    

We went into the next exhibition (computer applications technology) hoping to see black African pupils in the computer labs we were about to enter. There was only one. This was alarming given that those labs are a conveyor belt for future computer software and hardware engineers. 

The last item on our information-gathering tour was a viewing of the school’s art and sporting facilities. Here there was a strong presence of black pupils — we even came across a DJ playing amapiano songs who had a crowd of black pupils gathered around him, dancing and taking videos for TikTok. I recalled that when we arrived at the school we were welcomed by a choir that comprised only black pupils.  

You may be wondering where I am going with this: it appears that black kids are subconsciously and culturally wired to gravitate towards the world of sports and entertainment, the world that produces artists and values celebrity culture. 

They are not interested in the less glamorous world that requires spending hours in research labs, donning white coats and mixing chemicals to cure diseases, or fiddling with wires to build robots and machines to automate laborious work. What this means is that the so-called science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects are either not appealing to black pupils, or they are not being encouraged to take them up.  

In 2021, personal finance company Bankrate released a study of 159 college degrees in the US that found that Stem degrees are most valuable to those who earn them, while arts and music-related degrees are least valuable. The top 25 earning graduates in the list majored in Stem subjects, while the bottom 10 in the list held arts degrees.  

Architectural engineering graduates earned $90,000 annually on average, and only 1.3% were unemployed. Graduates who majored in construction services took home $80,000 and only 1% of them were jobless. Computer engineering graduates earned $101,000 year and 2.3% were unemployed.

Stem skills are scarce, restricting our country’s ability to grow its economy, attract investment and create jobs.

At the bottom of the list, at 159th spot, were holders of visual and performing arts degrees, who earned an average of $35,500 and 3.6% were unemployed. Fine arts graduates came in at 158, earned $38,000 and 5.6% couldn’t find work. Other low-ranking degrees were drama and theatre, ranked 157th, holders earning $41,000 annually, while video, film and photographic arts graduates were ranked 150th and earned $43,000 on average. 

Somebody could say: hang on, Hollywood has created wealthy movie stars and film studio owners. Yet, the vast majority of Hollywood stars are not as wealthy as Wall Street bankers or Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs, who rely on Stem graduates to build companies that generate billions of dollars. 

Even in SA, employers such as banks, insurers and telecoms, IT and construction companies are constantly looking to hire Stem graduates. But Stem skills are scarce, restricting our country’s ability to grow its economy, attract investment and create jobs.

Nearly 12-million South Africans are unemployed, mostly young, discouraged black jobseekers who do not have the skills needed by employers. Many of these young adults are trapped in prolonged adolescence in which they remain dependent on their parents late into adulthood. 

Young people are desperately needed to fill the shortage of artisans our country is facing. Last year, higher education minister Blade Nzimande lamented the shortage of artisans and revealed that SA needs at least 60% of school leavers to pursue artisanal-type training to meet the country’s demand for scarce skills.  

The Afrikaner community understands the importance of meeting this huge demand, prompting the Solidarity trade union to build the Afrikaans medium Sol-Tech private college in Pretoria, which offers formal training in trades such as electrician, millwright, diesel mechanic, fitter and turner, welder and tool and die maker. 

An effort must be made to educate both parents and children about scarce skills that are in demand. If the skills shortage is not addressed our country will not be globally competitive and targets for complying with BEE and employment equity policies may not be met for several decades to come.   

And lastly, our country will battle to produce the next generation of entrepreneurs and innovators that create new ventures that challenge old business models. 

• Ntingi is founder of GetBiz.

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