You wake up in the morning and check your emails. The first one reads: “We regret to inform you that your application was unsuccessful.” It’s a refrain South Africans know all too well.
You breathe through the disappointment and try to stay positive. You log onto your news app or social media, and find articles about another big company closing because of the unfavourable business climate. You have a sinking feeling in your stomach; this means you will be competing with even more people for jobs.
Before you heat your cereal, you check your prepaid electricity meter. You have exactly 7.2 units left. Your freelance gig does not pay until Friday, so you don’t know how you’ll stretch out these remaining units. You check your weather app to see which days will be cooler — you will only turn the geyser on for those days; today is a cold shower day.
Financial difficulties are common for job seekers. As a middle-class South African, I’ve never thought about how much electricity a hot shower takes. I was privileged — until I was unemployed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Now I know that a quick hot shower consumes 1.7 units.
When you are looking for work, you also have to cover costs such as data, transport and clothes to look good at interviews.
With every “we regret to inform you” your dignity and self-worth take a knock, and your sense of desperation and hopelessness swells. I was not alone. With a third of citizens under 35 unemployed and a pandemic adding fuel to the firestorm of youth unemployment in South Africa, something’s got to give.
Even among those of us with certificates and degrees, the sense of urgency and disillusionment is deepening. A friend and I recently reflected on the promise that was made to us — that if we did well in high school and attained tertiary qualifications we would be guaranteed job security and growth opportunities.
We discussed the trauma of #FeesMustFall. We were shot with rubber bullets and tear gassed, only to have our qualifications become a burden to certify and scan constantly in a shrinking job market. And then there was the KwaZulu-Natal violence last year, riddled with complexities but a clear expression of frustration that contributed to the civil unrest.
Young people are desperate. Under the current circumstances it has become hard for us to even hold onto the fundamental driving force to keep us looking, applying and trying: a sense of hope. We need to find ways to restore the dignity and hope of unemployed young people who do not see themselves as valuable citizens. Young people are the future employers, workforce, political leaders and entrepreneurs of this country, yet we do not see ourselves as such. This must change.
After months of job-seeking and freelancing, I now work for a philanthropic foundation committed to developing South Africa’s potential. A key aspect of our work is to invest in strategies that help young people to get their first decent job. If young people get work experience within the first few years after school, they are likely to remain employed. If they don’t, they are far more likely to be jobless for life — or at least to never get decent work. So, let’s roll up our sleeves and seek out collaborative solutions that involve all agents and sectors so that “we regret to inform you” changes to “as part of your job seeking process, how about you try this”.
To the employers
Provide job seekers with adequate recruiting systems. We are in the midst of a digital revolution, yet when I was applying for jobs, some companies refused to let candidates apply digitally. This requires them to incur costs for, among other things, transport and printing.
Ensure that your application systems are streamlined — data is expensive. Some companies offer job portals that let candidates upload their CVs, only to ask them to copy and paste their CV content into each field again later on. Clunky systems mean double the amount of data and time for applicants.
You can cut data and transport costs for candidates by conducting telephonic interviews or providing shortlisted candidates with data if doing an online interview.
The Presidential Youth Employment Initiative also encourages companies to use SAYouth.Mobi to load work opportunities. This platform is zero-rated for youth and streamlines the recruitment process for employers.
Expectations for entry-level roles are stacked to the roof. If you are hiring young people straight out of university, you can’t expect them to have five years’ experience. Rather lower the expectations and trial candidates. And take formal and informal experience into account such as job-shadowing, student leadership and volunteer work.
When you are creating entry-level positions, keep in mind that university curriculums are focused. If you studied journalism for example, you might have been prepared for a role in communications or graphic design, but when applying for work, I found that communication roles often get combined with information technology management, which requires technical skills I did not pick up in my journalism degree.
Combining roles in the workplace leads to fewer opportunities for jobseekers, but at entry-level it is also discouraging for young people who have just qualified in a specialised area. Organisations need to stop seeing themselves in isolation to the education sector and sustainable development. Employers can look for candidates who are willing to learn new skills but, advertising an entry-level role in two different fields puts young entry-level job seekers at a disadvantage.
There are 11 official languages, and many South Africans don’t speak English as their first language. Integrate multilingualism into the application process, interviews and assessment if the role requires communication in a vernacular language. Interviewing in a language that is not the candidate’s mother tongue can hold them back even if they are fully capable of doing the job.
Reply and explain to shortlisted candidates why they weren’t a good fit if their application was unsuccessful. Candidates cannot improve if they do not know where they failed. If time is not on your side, or a large number of people were interviewed, send unsuccessful candidates a group email outlining what was required for answering each question. You could also send the score sheets used to assess candidates so they can identify their strengths and weaknesses.
Last, don’t steal the intellectual property of candidates. They devote hours to practical assessments and assignments and often present their best ideas. If you are not going to appoint the candidate but would still like to use their ideas, ask for consent and remunerate them fairly. Human resource policies are required to ensure the practice of asking for assignments as part of recruitment processes takes place in an ethical way.
To our government
It has been said many times, and the DG Murray Trust has been advocating for this for many years: we need more zero-rated job sites to make the application process easier for individuals who are struggling financially.
To prepare learners for hiring during and after a pandemic, high schools’ curriculums must include digital skills. The skills learners need are modern CV writing, the use of virtual interview platforms such as Zoom and Skype, email etiquette, writing good cover letters, scanning and certifying documents, and how to be confident in interviews.
There are ways to reduce the pressure on state-funded solutions such as the Public Employment Programmes by partnering with other sectors. Collaborate with young people and NGOs to find ways to create more innovative income streams. NGOs such as Youth Capital are working to shape a new way to collectively tackle the crisis of youth unemployment by joining the dots between young people’s experiences, data and policies. They have created an action plan that highlights areas for improvement in the complexities of youth unemployment. They also have other resources on their website.
To young job-seekers
I am not sure what to say to you that you have not heard before. Thanks to internet algorithms, as a jobseeker, you are continually fed articles filled with “tips and tricks to be the perfect candidate”. I do not want to patronise you, so I will give you a few pointers from my own experience that might help.
We can co-drive solutions to unemployment by familiarising ourselves with NGOs such as Job Starter, Youth Capital and Activate!, which provide motivation, information and skills that are useful for job seekers.
Use social media when you are low on data. Facebook Zero (a free version of Facebook) has pages where job opportunities are posted regularly. Pages include The Resource, Esihle Matshaya, Youth of Tsomo, I Need Someone Who, Working Moms and Dads, Eastern Cape Vacancies and Salary Magazine.
If you want to start your own business, the Activate Academy offers an online self-led learning platform that is free to use. Courses include project planning, side hustle, leadership and talking through conflict. There are also courses offered in isiXhosa and isiZulu such as Ukubhala iCV.
The National Youth Development Agency also offers e-learning courses developed by the Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta). The courses are free and can be completed at one’s own pace. A number of other free online short courses can be found on websites such as Coursera and LinkedIn to complement your qualifications while you wait for a work opportunity.
When you apply for positions, ensure your CV is up to date and well-formatted. Write an effective and sincere cover letter — don’t just repeat what is on your CV — and prepare well for an interview.
I know you are tired but don’t try to wing it. If you are given a practical assessment, use it as an opportunity to learn, research and acquire a new skill even if you do not get the job.
Ask questions. While they interview you, remember that you are also interviewing them so that you can see if they fit your vision. Ask them what the first task will be if you get the job and inquire about growth prospects. Ask for feedback if you don’t make it through to the next round of interviews.
Last, acknowledge your progress and the small victories. Passing grade 10, 11 and 12 is an accomplishment as is receiving a tertiary qualification; getting an interview or being shortlisted is a step forward. Read books that encourage you to see things this way. During my job search, John Kehoe’s Mind Power Into the 21st Century motivated me. Kehoe says we are quicker to see our own shortcomings than to recognise our achievements, but we can use success energy from previous wins to believe that we are capable of achieving again and again.
I lost count of the number of cold showers and even colder rejection emails I received during my job hunt. I’ve never felt like more of a failure than I did then, but here I am today, less frustrated, and a lot more hopeful. I’m finally employed again, and in a position where I can really make a difference.
Please don’t give up.