This brief is the first of a pair considering the transition from education to work among young people. It delineates the main features of the transition. The second brief will consider evidence on the stability of employment.
In many countries young people are finding it increasingly
difficult to enter thelabour market and that this constitutes not
only a threat to social peace but also an obstacle to the
development of the individual and to that of societyas a whole. 
  -  International Labour Organisation, 1998


The International Labour Organisation has put considerable effort in recent years into empirical studies of the school to work transition. This transition is defined as the passage of a young person from the end of schooling to the first stable or satisfactory job.   
A stable job is a job with a written contract of duration of at least 12 months or an oral agreement likely to hold over the next 12 months. A satisfactory job may be satisfactory self-employment in which the young self-employed person does not want to change job or a satisfactory temporary job where the young employee has a written contract of duration less than 12 months and does not want to change job, or has an oral agreement, not certain to keep the job over next 12 months, but does not want to change job[i].
Information is collected by a School to Work Transition Survey (SWTS), not yet undertaken in South Africa. In particular, we lack information about the stability and satisfactoriness of jobs. Nonetheless, we do have sufficient statistical information to illuminate the transition, including the following:
  • General Household Survey (GHS): 2010 and 2015
  • Quarterly Labour Force Survey (QLFS): Third quarter (Q3) 2010 and Third Quarter 2016
  • Time Use Survey (TUS): 2010
  • Census: 2011
  • A special QLFS Panel data set with a common set of respondents, permitting an analysis of transitions between states in the third and fourth quarters of 2013
  • Community Survey: 2016
Not every source yields information on every aspect of the transition. The sources used are referenced at the bottom of the graphs which follow.  
A word of caution is necessary for their interpretation.  The sample sizes for the GHS, QLFS and TUS are small, and this leads to jagged curves when data by age are presented. These irregularities are a statistical artefact and they should be looked through in assessing the shape of the curve as a whole[ii].  

Exit from education 

Figure 1 displays enrolments in educational institutions[iii] by age.
The estimates are broadly coherent, with the Census underestimating enrolments at the youngest ages and the GHS 2010 underestimating them for people in their early 20s. There is no systematic variation of the estimates across data sources by date. Enrolments remain above 250 000 up to age 21 and above 100 000 up to age 23. From age 25 on, the enrolments are almost all in colleges and universities.  
Estimates of the numbers enrolled in education vary across the sources. They range from 5.5 million in the 2010 GHS to 6.0 million in the Census and in the 2015 GHS and 6.3 million in the 2016 Community Survey.  

Entrance into work

Figure 2 displays employment by age. The discrepancy across sources is greater than in Figure 1, particularly in the second half of the age range. Estimates of total youth employment vary as follows:

General Household Survey 2010

6 097 528

Quarterly Labour Force Survey 2010

5 678 772

Time Use Survey 2010

6 335 653

Census 2011

6 059 442

General Household Survey 2015

6 804 162

Quarterly Labour Force Survey 2016

6 161 355

Population 15-34:  2010

19 009 000

Population 15-34:  2015

20 529 000[iv]

Both the QLFS and GHS indicate movement up between 2010 and 2016.
Estimates of the number employed at age 34 range from 474 000 to 556 000, excluding the outlier Census 2011 estimate. This represents between 53 and 62 per cent of the population of the same age.   
Bear in mind that Statistics South Africa defines people as employed if they work as little as an hour per week. Information about the distribution of time spent working will be considered in the next brief.  
It is possible to be enrolled in an educational institution and work at the same time. The Census shows that just over 10% of employed people were distributed over education institution types as follows:



Technical and Vocational Education and Training College


Other College




Adult Basic Education and Training Centre


Literacy classes





The people in between

It has become standard to refer to the people not in education or employment as NEETs (Not in Employment, Education and Training). They come in two categories: NEETs who desire to work and NEETs who don’t. The first category contains the officially unemployed (those who both desire work and are seeking) and discouraged workers (those who desire work, but are not actively seeking it). The second category contains the economically inactive (people who do not desire work).
Figure 3 displays the distribution of NEETs Category One by age.
Two things stand out:
  1. The two QLFS estimates are markedly higher than those from the Time Use Survey and Census. The QLFS provides more information to enable accurate identification of NEETs than the other sources, and should be regarded as more reliable. QLFS 2010 put the number of NEETs Category 1 at 5.3 million, compared with 5.1 million in 2016.
  2. One would expect the NEET curve to rise as people complete their education and then fall as they are absorbed into employment. But the South African curve is distinctive in two respects. It takes a long time for people to be absorbed into employment and, even at age 34, the process is incomplete. The fact that the number of NEETs is not far short of the number of employed is the number one problem facing South African youth.
Finally, NEETs Category Two are shown in Figure 4, drawn to the same vertical scale as Figure 3.
Both QLFS 2010 and QLFS 2016 put the number of NEETs Category 2 at just over two million, with a less reliable estimate from the Census of 2.8 million. Put another way, little more than 10% of young people are economically inactive, with 90% in education, a job or wanting work.    


The hazardous nature of the transition from education to work is clear. Absorption into employment is very slow, and some young people will never graduate into stable employment. It is worth noting that the number of Category 1 NEETs is five times the number of students enrolled in universities, and their needs are greater.
Charles Simkins
Head of Research 

[i] Farhad Mehran, Can we measure school to work transition of young people with labour force surveys?  A feasibility study, Employment Policy Department, Youth Employment Programme, Work4Youth, Technical Brief 8, November 2016 
[ii] All sources contain a degree of sampling error, even the census which is adjusted for undercount using re-enumeration in a sample of enumeration areas
[iii] These include schools, TVET (technical and vocational education colleges), other colleges (both public and private), universities, community education and training colleges (including Adult Basic Education), and home schooling  
[iv] The population estimates are taken from the United Nations World Population Prospects, 2015 revision