What support programmes exist to help young professionals successfully take on their first jobs in the modern economy?


According to an article in the Economist, young people and university graduates across the globe face unprecedented challenges to find jobs and become economically active since the market crash and global recession of 2008. Countries such as Spain, the UK, Brazil, India and even Japan sit with a ‘lost generation’ – known as ‘generation jobless’ – of youth that remain unemployed.

In SA, politicians and observers have warned about possible social unrest because more than half of the youth are jobless. But experts agree that youngsters who complete studies and obtain qualifications improve their future prospects.

In addition, corporate SA, several government departments and state-owned enterprises offer in-house mentorship programmes to help bridge the gap between the lecture room and workplace.

Most local universities have so-called alumni programmes, supported by business, that are aimed at furthering career development and upskilling top graduates, particularly in finance and business, who excel at their studies and achieve outstanding results.

While there is a perception that graduates in countries with high unemployment in Europe, Asia, South America and India as well as in SA have little chance of finding employment in the current world economy, as stated in the Economist, Hendrik van Broekhuizen, researcher at the economics department of the University of Stellenbosch and professor Servaas van der Berg of the same faculty, say they were ‘pleasantly surprised’ with the results of their research in May 2013. The research measured the actual rate of graduate unemployment in SA for the first time.

Quoted by Econ3x3, an independent forum for critical public debate on social issues, Van der Berg says the notion that graduate unemployment is a ‘major and rapidly growing problem’ is false. ‘SA’s graduate unemployment rate has not risen significantly since 2005 and remains low at around 6%. It also compares well with rates in developed countries,’ he says.

‘The large expansion of black graduate numbers has not significantly exacerbated unemployment among graduates. Contrary to popular perception, such graduates – many from “formerly disadvantaged universities” – have been snapped up by the private sector. Black graduates are, however, still three times more likely to be unemployed than white graduates in SA.

‘This is despite the finding that the country’s 1995 ratio of 1.7 white graduates for every black graduate in the labour force had dropped to 0.9 by 2012 – mainly due to the significant growth in the number of black graduates over the past 20 years.

‘On the whole, the number of employed black graduates has increased greatly since 1995,’ Van der Berg says. He says SA’s graduate unemployment rates also compare well with Europe.

‘At our rate of 5.9%, SA remains quite low compared to Europe’s rate of 6.2% of graduates out of work in 2012, particularly relative to SA’s aggregate unemployment rate of approximately 36% in its broader definition.’

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‘Nowadays industry experience is fast becoming the most important trait potential employers will consider’


He says earlier research that cited rapid increases in graduate unemployment rates in the post-apartheid era drew conclusions from only two data points – usually the October Household Survey of 1995 and one of the 2002–2005 Labour Force surveys. But by 2005 the broad unemployment rate for graduates had already been in decline for some time.

‘Indications are that unemployment is much less of a threat to SA graduates than for other groups such as artisans and young people with poor skills and education,’ says Van der Berg.

Graduate mentorship programmes are designed around a ‘coach’ or mentor who plays a central role in guiding fledgling professionals to successfully master a set of new demands in their first jobs.

They are frequently expected to perform almost immediately in the modern economy, a factor that most find daunting, even threatening in some cases.

Gerrie van Biljon, executive director of Business Partners, says the high percentage of unemployed graduates in SA justifies the implementation of graduate development programmes to bridge the gap. He emphasises however, that a qualification alone is also no longer the most important attribute employers look at when hiring staff.

‘Nowadays industry experience is fast becoming the most important trait potential employers will consider. Graduate development programmes provide the opportunity to get such experience.’ He says the Business Partners mentorship programme, which takes between 10 and 15 new graduates annually, is one of the oldest and most structured programmes that exist and is in its eleventh year.

It runs over two years, unlike several others that last for about a year. Participants work on a contract basis at different companies and small businesses to gain hands-on experience.

‘The fact that many of the participants are now working in top management positions at Business Partners itself, demonstrates the degree of confidence we have in our mentorship programme. It’s like buying shares in one’s own company.’

Van Biljon says the programme is tightly structured and not loosely designed as a mere ‘sitting in a corner somewhere with some research to keep busy’.

Some mentorship programmes are geared to promote racial transformation in the workplace

He says it ensures the development of management, business and entrepreneurial acumen of the ‘youngsters’ to turn them into business leaders of the future.

Meanwhile, the Black Management Forum (BMF) recently launched a business mentorship programme for members who have already been working in junior management and professional positions in their first jobs for at least two years.

Ledile Bopape, national co-ordinator of the BMF student chapter and young professionals division, says the programme will run for about a year following a pilot, which started in September 2013.

‘The programme is strongly supported by businesses such as the Airports Company of SA, among others, and institutions such as the Pacific Institute and Regenesys Business School. The focus is mainly on soft skill development for managers and covers aspects such as the way organisations operate, teamwork, personal mastery and more.’

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Some mentorship programmes are geared to promote racial transformation in the workplace. For instance, the shortage of black chartered accountants in the country has sparked intervention in the form of mentorship support from different quarters including SARS, the South African Institute for Chartered Accountants (SAICA) and various private sector companies that have intervened. The exact shape and form of these mentorships vary.

On its website, Investec says its mentorships form part of the company’s bursary programme. Bursary recipients are partnered with Investec staff who guide the selected youth throughout their final academic year. There is even ‘extensive’ support to the mentors themselves offered through various initiatives.

According to SAICA, its Thuthuka mentorship and development programme that was launched in 2002 to transform the face of chartered accountants (CAs) in the workplace, is achieving remarkable success a decade later.

The number of black, coloured and Indian CAs who graduated over the past decade grew steadily from 1 325 in 2002 to 6 136 in 2012. SAICA says the programme is necessary because without this type of intervention, the upper echelons of big business will continue to be dominated by white faces.

In 2011, the first 13 Thuthuka graduates joined the ranks of the CA fraternity after at least seven years of studies in one of the longest running and most expensive university degrees.

Thuthuka is offered to students from previously disadvantaged groups at nine universities that are participating with more being brought on board, according to SAICA.

By Louise Brougham-Cook
Image: Fredrik Broden/