The numbers released last month by Stats SA remind us that we have an unemployment crisis in South Africa, especially among youngsters. More than two-thirds of young people in the country cannot find work, yet businesses regularly report that they can’t find the “right” person for the job.

What is driving this mismatch between so many young people searching for work and businesses that say they struggle to hire employees?

For the past eight years, Harambee has been trying to understand this question and come up with answers. We have worked with a network of more than 600 000 unemployed jobseekers and partnered with more than 500 businesses. And what have we learnt?

Around the world, employers are waking up to the reality that educational degrees are not the most important criteria for hiring. In fact, Apple and Google recently decided they would no longer require employees to have a college degree.

However, we find that businesses still hire mostly on the basis of qualifications and skills – even if they aren’t good predictors of successon the job. Signals matter as much as skills when hiring young people.

A signal is a way of communicating credible information in the labour market that gives employers comfort in offering a job to a youngster with little or no prior experience. Let’s consider the example of the matric certificate. While a matric certificate is typically not considered by many employers as a useful indicator that someone is able to do the job, finishing matric still matters as a signal because employers use the matric certificate as a way of filtering out people, even if the skills needed can be taught on the job.

We need to be a lot smarter about all of these dimensions of employability if we really want to support young people to successfully find and keep a job.
The Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit found an 8% difference in economic activity and connection to the labour market between those who completed matric versus those who didn’t.

Yet more than half of young unemployed South Africans do not finish matric and are in the labour market looking for work. How can we help them find other ways of signalling their potential and capability if they don’t have a matric certificate?

Harambee’s answer is to help our partners measure employability, which looks at all the dimensions needed for a young person to successfully find and keep their first job. This means looking beyond just school marks and paper qualifications to also measuring really important things such as behaviours, attitude and learning capabilities.

Almost every employer we encounter uses some kind of a numerical assess mentor maths test in their hiring processes. We have seen that all this really measures is the poor quality of maths education young people have received in our school system – it doesn’t measure their learning potential and ability to actually do the job.

When we give them a learning potential assessment as well, we see that many who failed the maths test have high fluid intelligence and problem-solving abilities. And isn’t this actually what employers are really hoping for when they measure maths? Employability is also about the basics, like the cost of transport to work.

We have seen many youngsters at Harambee who have all the right stuff to do the job, but can’t afford the taxi fare to get to and from work, especially in the first month when they haven’t received their first salary. We can find innovative solutions for this challenge by creating more opportunities closer to where they live, or helping businesses think harder about how to support a first-time jobseeker to manage transport costs so that they can succeed at work.

A ground-breaking study that Harambee recently completed with The University of Oxford in the UK, Duke University in the US, Stellenbosch University and the World Bank shows that we need to be a lot smarter about all of these dimensions of employability if we really want to support young people to successfully find and keep a job.

The study investigates the impacts of providing an unemployed person with information about their other attributes and measures its impact on their ability to find work. Early findings show that when jobseekers are given a summary report to share with potential employers, their likelihood of finding work increases by up to 17% and their earning potential increases by up to 32% compared with a group who didn’t receive the report.

The study also explores which signals employers value by ranking standardised candidate profiles. Communication abilities were found to be the most predictive for employment and earnings. Grit and resilience are also valued. If these kinds of signals provide a young person with better access to work, it’s imperative to provide them with information about themselves that is considered useful by employers.

They need information that can help them better navigate the job market, including how to look for jobs, how to use their networks and how to prepare for an interview so that they can capably answer the common questions that arise.

Seemingly small interventions like this can have an outsized impact.
Initial results from the study show that young people who were provided with these prompts were about 20% more likely to find work than if they didn’t have the information. Young jobseekers don’t always know how to express what they can do and they don’t always know how to share the valuable experiences that they have had because they don’t think of this as “formal work experience”.

Businesses need to learn to ask different questions and play a role in helping a young person get a foot in the door. Instead of just focusing on educational qualifications and prior work experience, ask about things they have done before, like volunteering or self-directed learning.

Ask if someone else – like a teacher or a community leader – can provide the jobseeker with a reference. And if someone works for you, even for a short period of time, offer to do the same and give them a reference for the next opportunity. These are the small ways we can all make an outsized impact for so many young people who are hunting for work.

This article was written by Maryana Iskanker, CEO of Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, and appeared in the Business section of the City Press (2 June 2019) under the headline “It’s all about employability“.

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