Employment rises in agriculture but many graduates without jobs

Despite challenging economic conditions and persistent structural issues, South Africa’s employment landscape remains dynamic, as shown by recent data from Stats SA statistician general Risenga Maluleke.

The figures reveal both gains and setbacks in the labour market, drawing particular attention to the agricultural sector, a vital component of the country’s economy. 

Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz) senior economist Wandile Sihlobo explained that employment in primary agriculture increased by 6% yearly to 941 000 in the first quarter of 2024, a 2% increase from the last quarter of 2023.

Agbiz/IDC Agribusiness Confidence Index: Agbiz chief economist and author Wandile Sihlobo. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Agbiz chief economist and author Wandile Sihlobo. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Impact of drought

“Admittedly, the significant drought damage has been concentrated on the summer grains and oil seed regions, not across all agricultural sub-sectors which somewhat explains the resilience in job data. Moreover, there could be a lag in fully accounting for agriculture’s financial pressures and the impact on employment after that,” he said. 

According to Sihlobo, the current data reveals that jobs have generally increased across most sub-sectors of agriculture in the first quarter compared with the corresponding period last year. The decline in employment was only in the production of organic fertilisers, fishing, and fish hatcheries.  

He added that this could indicate the potential delay before the sub-sectors heavily impacted by the mid-summer dryness fully reflected the financial impact and subsequent effect.  

Decreased employment in provinces

“The Eastern Cape, Northern Cape, North West, Gauteng, and Mpumalanga were behind the annual uptick in agricultural employment. These provinces broadly comprised various agricultural commodities or value chains. Thus, the uptick in jobs is not primarily on the back of a particular value chain but spread across a range,” he said. 

Sihlobo said the agricultural sector remains crucial for employment creation in South Africa’s rural communities. However, the sector must be on a positive growth path to sustain and create new job opportunities.

In a survey Agbiz conducted in March 2024, which covered businesses operating in all agricultural sub-sectors across South Africa, the respondents raised the several challenges as the most troubling issues they face. These include the recent El Niño-induced drought, struggles with poor rail and road infrastructure, worsening municipal service delivery, rising incidents of crime, lingering animal disease challenges, and increased geopolitical uncertainty.

“Therefore, the South African government and the private sector should work collectively to address these issues, particularly the ones on the domestic policymakers’ reach, to support long-term growth,” Sihlobo said.

A few positives

Meanwhile, Maluleke said the working-age population increased by 137 000 or 0.3% in the first quarter of 2024 compared to the fourth quarter of 2023.  

Stats SA statistician general Risinga Maluleke.Photo: Supplied/Twitter

“The number of employed persons increased by 22 000 to 16.7 million in Q1: 2024, and the number of unemployed persons increased by 330 000 to 8.2 million compared to Q4: 2023, resulting in an increase of 352 000 (up by 1.4%) in the labour force.

“The number of discouraged work seekers decreased by 1 000, and the number of people who were not economically active for reasons other than discouragement decreased by 214 000 (down by 1,6%) between the two quarters, resulting in a net decrease of 215 000 in the not economically active population,” he said. 

Unemployed agricultural graduates

However, Malose Mokgotho, the president of the South African Agricultural Graduates Organisation (Saaga) shared that the agricultural sector does not have any employment opportunities for agricultural graduates. 

He added that when the graduates do get jobs, graduates are not paid what they deserve but rather what general labourers earn and the government is not intervening there.  

“There are no institutions trading formally that employ agricultural graduates and that is why in our sector, the unemployment is very high. In one year, seeing 1 000 graduates hired permanently in the private and department sectors would be a miracle.

“There is no proper employment and people study various courses in the agricultural sector but they remain without jobs. The government needs to remove this red tape and make an employable environment for new graduates because the private sector is exploiting graduates to the extent that they end up giving up their careers,” he expressed.

Efforts made to improve graduate employment

Meanwhile, Agrijob recruitment specialist Marianne van der Laarse echoed Mokgotho’s sentiments, adding that the employment of graduates in entry-level jobs or internships in agriculture still faces huge challenges.

2022 matrics: Agrijob managing director Marianne van der Laarse. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Agrijob managing director Marianne van der Laarse. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

However, she believes that several initiatives have already resulted in a significant increase in the uptake of graduates in agriculture.

Van der Laarse explained that the Fresh Produce Exporters Forum launched a graduate placement programme several years ago. Since Agrijob’s involvement in 2019, more than 60 black graduates have been placed at fresh produce exporter companies throughout South Africa.

“With an impressively high retention rate of 70%, these graduates are now working in full-time positions in the export industry, and the other 30% easily get employment elsewhere in the industry. Agrijob has also been recently appointed to manage South Africa Wine’s graduate placement programme,” she said.

According to Van der Laarse, there is a fairly high employment rate of qualified, skilled, and experienced people in the agriculture sector, but there is a fairly low employment rate of graduates who do not possess the necessary skills or have applicable experience.

“To overcome this challenge, the only solution is for the industry to employ many more graduates in intern or graduate placement positions, enabling them to gain experience. When the intern or graduate contract period expires, the company has a choice to appoint the intern to a full-time position. If not, the intern has gained valuable experience, which can facilitate employment at another company in the industry,” she said.

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