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Opinion: In The Battle Against Unemployment, Corporates Must Step In To Help Graduates Become Job-Ready

Unemployment remains a massive problem in South Africa, with the official unemployment rate hitting a new record high of 34.4% in the second quarter of 2021 from 32.6% in the first quarter, according to figures released by Statics South Africa (Stats SA). Even more alarming is the youth unemployment rate in our country, which reached an all-time high of 64.4% and has been described as the country’s “other pandemic”.

Given the scale of this crisis, South African companies have a responsibility to hire locals, yet many local job seekers – especially in the technology space – often lack the adequate skills and experience. Instead, organisations end up importing skills rather than playing their role to upskill graduates.

While government continues to talk about embracing the Fourth Industrial Revolution, there seems to be few private sector initiatives that are actively aimed at addressing the country’s technology skills dearth. Hence, corporates should be urged to meet government halfway and help with the upskilling of young people so that they can be employed.

Not prepared

Unfortunately, many graduates who enter the job market or who join internship programmes are expected to adapt and be up to speed immediately. However, universities and diplomas do not prepare them for this. As a result, a large portion of them end up becoming frustrated and drop out of the ICT space entirely before even starting their careers.

It must be said that some ICT companies have taken the initiative and have recognised the need to offer internship or training courses that equip graduates and job seekers with skills that make them job-ready. These courses present young people with opportunities to gain practical experience and obtain certification before applying to corporates for mentorship or permanent positions.

Ideally, if we are to effectively achieve South Africa’s employment aspirations, such programmes should be underpinned by the three pillars of education, gender equality and health – which align with three of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Developing a skills pool

The education pillar is perhaps the most self-explanatory. While many graduates study IT, many of them are unable to find jobs once they enter the formal labour market. Private sector-sponsored- and -driven skills and training initiatives have to fill these gaps. This is to ensure that graduates are employable by giving them practical skills and bringing them up to speed with the latest industry trends and developments. This is also the most effective way to develop a local skills pool that corporates can draw from.

The gender equality pillar is vitally important to address the historical imbalance with the local labour market. While South Africa’s job landscape was traditionally always more favourable to men, the gender gap was even further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Research by ScienceDirect also shows that women were more severely affected by employment losses during lockdown, with women accounting for two-thirds of the net job losses between February and April in 2020. It is therefore critical that corporates focus their graduate programmes and employment policies towards addressing the issue of gender equality.

Women in leadership

Unfortunately, the situation in the ICT sector reflects the bigger picture. We still have more male technicians and there is a disproportionately larger amount of men who head up technology companies. We want to see more female CIOs, and hopefully within the next five years we will see a shift in attitudes towards gender equality, with more women playing a prominent role in technology.

Lastly, graduate training programmes and internships should play a significant role in the promotion of health and wellbeing. These initiatives should be positioned to promote better mental health among graduates by empowering them to reach their career goals, which will also then enable them to make better lifestyle choices.

We know that technology is a key enabler to addressing many global issues, but we need a significant mindset shift. Rather than simply looking at profits, technology companies need to take the lead and develop initiatives that can help solve societal challenges. The IT skills gap is a well-known issue, so it is up to corporates to nurture young professionals and upskill them to positively impact the ICT industry and the country as a whole.