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It’s not just about skills, it’s about employability

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It’s not just about skills, it’s about employability

Maryana Iskander

18 Jun 2019

4min min read
  • Sustainable development
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he numbers released recently by Stats SA remind us that we have a crisis of youth unemployment in South Africa. Over two-thirds of young people 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 who say they struggle to hire? 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 over 600,000 unemployed work-seekers and partnered with over 500 businesses. And what have we learned? 

"Signals matter as much as skills in hiring young people."

Signals matter as much as skills in 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 youth 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 for being able to do the job, finishing matric still matters as a signal. That is because employers use the matric certificate as a way of filtering out people, even if the skills needed can be taught on the job. The South African Labour Development Research Unit found an 8% difference in economic activity and connection to the labour market between youth who completed matric versus those who didn’t. Yet, more than half of our 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 signaling 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 a first job. This means looking beyond just school marks and paper qualifications, and also measuring really important things like behaviours, attitude, and learning capabilities. 

Almost every employer we encounter uses some kind of a numerical assessment or math 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 schooling 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 math test have very high fluid intelligence and problem-solving abilities. And isn’t this actually what employers are really hoping to hire for when they measure maths? 

Employability is also about the basics, like the cost of transport to work. We have seen many youth 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 yet received a paycheck. How do we 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 work-seeker manage transport costs so that they can succeed at work? 

A pathbreaking study that Harambee recently completed together with Oxford University, Duke University, 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. 

"Communication abilities were found to be the most predictive for employment and earnings. Grit and resilience were also valued."

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 work-seekers are given a summary report to share with potential employers, their likelihood of finding work increases by up to 17% and their earnings by up to 32% compared to 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 were also valued.

If these kinds of signals provides a young person with better access to work, then 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 are better prepared to answer the common questions that arise. 

Seemingly small interventions like this can have 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 work-seekers don’t always know how to express what they can do. They don’t always know how to share the valuable experiences that they have had because they don’t think of it if 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 them 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 on the job hunt. 

(Main image: candidates from all walks of life - Stock Photo/Getty Images)

This article was originally published in City Press on 2 June 2019.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.