Talking about unemployment is futile if the training system does not function
About a year ago a lively discussion took place between a group of individuals who are all regarded as leaders in their specific fields. It was about the unemployment rate which, following the release of the Household and Income Survey, gave Namibia the unwanted label as the southern African country with the highest unemployment of all – more than 51% of the economically active population.
Much has been said about that statistic. I doubted its reliability from the outset arguing that if that were so, then half of the population must be without shelter and food every single day. Observable fact does not support such a premise. Politicians quoted the figure in parliament straining all possible mileage from it. Very few individuals dared to agree with me although, here and there, a few enlightened individuals were actually prepared to discuss the issue.
But the conversation I mention at the top, shone an entirely different light on the issue and subsequently changed my evaluation, not of the survey results, but of the economic and social impact of unemployment. It also forced me to adopt a more empathetic view on the reality of being without a job, especially for those with families, and those that are quite capable and able to work.
The participants in that conversation eventually agreed that the unemployment figure is probably overstated, but one aspect stood out: – regardless whether unemployment is 51% or 35% or even 25%, it is still horrendous.
My grilling of the survey results was based on methodology. There are many points on which the survey can be faulted but it provided, for the first time, a limited window into a growing evil. And that evil has also come under discussion lately. In any society where the majority is unemployed, the rulers sit on a time bomb.
Following some more serious analytical work by several researchers representing a cross-section of business and civil society interests, there is much support for the notion that unemployment is not nearly 51% or even close. But it does not diminish from my earlier remarks that it is our most pressing developmental problem.
However, during this week in yet another broad discussion of the issue, I was confronted by another statistic, equally horrendous. It now appears that absenteeism in the formal education sector is running at 24%. This is unbelievable especially when compared to the parastatal norm of around 8% and the private sector benchmark of 1% or less. And when we are talking of absenteeism in the education sector, we are most definitely referring to teachers.
This fact opens a very large can of worms and it puts yet another slant on the unemployment debate. The government is often criticised for operating as an employer of last resort for a very large chunk of the working population. This is usually not denied but it is obscured by pseudo arguments, and economic jargon that only a few analysts can readily digest and understand. But the main issue is that with such pervasive absence from duties amongst the country’s teacher corps, it now becomes an ethical issue. There is an identifiable moral hazard when government defends its employee figures, but after some careful analysis of the attendance figures, it transpires that one quarter of that staff complement, fails to pitch for work, and I assume that is on a daily basis.
There is a second ethical consideration, one that has a direct bearing on the existential side. If so many teachers are absent on a daily basis, why do we need to spend the biggest chunk of the national budget on an education system that has clearly broken down due to the incompetence of the very people that are supposed to carry that system. Take the argument a bit further and one can ask how much do the absent teachers steal from government, from the country, and by implication from all other tax paying citizens. And then, ultimately, the most important question: how much are they robbing us from our collective future prosperity by not fulfilling their duty to make sure that the next generation of workers are educated and trained, at least to a certain minimum standard.
I deem it somewhat of a waste of time to get my knickers in a twist over a scary unemployment situation when the foundation of our education system, the teachers, do their utmost to ensure that the future unemployed are already turned into unemployables, through a lack of education.
So much is being said so often about lack of capacity among the existing teachers, it borders on the mundane but when one has to face the absenteeism statistics, one wonders if it does not actually borders on the criminal.
And on top of everything, teachers get three holidays in a year.