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Demanding prior work experience from new graduates is unfair and short-sighted

Demanding prior work experience from new graduates is unfair and short-sighted

Writing off graduates on the basis of a lack of work experience is a misunderstanding of what universities do and what the academic environment ingrains in students.

‘The government is determined forcefully to confront the scourge of unemployment, not by way of handouts but by the creation of work opportunities.” This was said in a State of the Nation Address (Sona) – but not the 2023 Sona.

Instead, it was in President Nelson Mandela’s 1994 address. Since then, South Africa’s unemployment rate has constantly stayed above 20%, while the world average has been between 5% and 6%.

According to the latest StatsSA data, 32.6% of unemployed people below the age of 24 are graduates with tertiary qualifications and 22.4% are between 25 and 34. Often, these graduates are written out of consideration by prospective employers because they do not have industry experience of a certain number of years. Such experience is most frequently a precondition that is non-negotiable.

The jobseekers are all too easily dismissed as being too steeped in theory, insufficient in practical knowledge, and likely to cost the employer resources and time to train. This is both unfair and short-sighted. This is why.

Writing off graduates on the basis of a lack of work experience is a misunderstanding of what universities do and what the academic environment ingrains in students. To achieve admission into tertiary studies – a highly selective process that takes and retains only the best of the best – students must be sufficiently driven to persist in a high-pressure environment in the face of incalculable challenges to achieve their goals. Many – indeed about half – do not graduate as they are forced to drop out.

Read in Daily Maverick:University graduates are the new cheap labour – underemployed, underpaid and underused

How does this multiyear, day-to-day labour, characterised by intricate time, resource and stakeholder management, fall short of the kind of experience to be gained from an industry environment? It is time to redefine the experience of academic training.

We are currently in a major transition in the world of work, grappling with the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, where skill sets require constant updating. But the concept of “lifelong education” is nothing new, having been championed since the 1970s.

A Cambridge University study commissioned by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) notes the renewed relevance of the concept amid debates about who should provide it. Wherever one falls on this aspect of the debate, this much is clear: in an era where technology is redefining whole industries, lifelong education must be embraced.

Necessarily, this should include on-the-job learning. A perceived lack of experience on entry should not bar employers from enlisting the services of clearly capable and self-driven young people who have been preparing for such opportunities for three or more years.

Universities, government and business, and other forms of employers must each recognise their role in the disjointed state of cooperation in which we find ourselves.

The South African government’s approach is cognisant of the need for an agile skills base. In its 2020 National Digital and Future Skills Strategy South Africa document, the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies expresses the vision that the future requires agile graduates who are employable across a wide range of environments.

Part of the challenge in placing graduates in employment stems from a lack of cooperation and common purpose between the government and employers, and between these two actor groups and our universities.

In contrast to many leading countries, in South Africa these three players commonly operate in silos and appear to demonstrate a laissez-faire approach to education, work readiness and employment.

Read in Daily Maverick:South Africa may lose 53% of graduates to emigration, survey shows

This is to be expected to some extent; businesses should operate in a permissive environment in which it is not stifled by government overregulation. A similar principle applies to academia; government interference would do away with the very idea and purpose of the university.

Nevertheless, in a country with South Africa’s economic past and contemporary realities, a path needs to be charted in which all these objectives can coexist; an environment where business is allowed to grow and where a scholar can be critical, including of the government, but at the same time one in which graduates can find careers soon after completing their studies. Failing this, the unemployment crisis will deepen even further than it has since Mandela’s first Sona.

There have been considerable advances in the technology space which allow, among others, for artificial intelligence- and virtual and augmented reality-powered immersive learning, simulations and gamification. If the concern is the readiness or suitability of graduates for industry, there are innovative and cost-effective means to assess and, if needed, correct for their shortcomings.

This is not new thinking. The government observed in 2020 that in South Africa “those forms of collaborative computing that minimise unemployment at a range of income levels and foster an actively evolving labour market require greater attention by business and government”.

This pronouncement, however, has not found its way into legislation. The government needs to take bolder steps to promulgate laws that reflect the changed nature of work in the wake of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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It is noted in the preamble of the Employment Equity Act that the law seeks to “eliminate unfair discrimination in employment”, and further, to “promote economic development and efficiency in the workplace” as well as to “give effect to the obligations of the Republic as a member of the International Labour Organisation”.

Under these three obligations, the continued requirement of experience, even when means of obtaining it are scarce, would appear to be discriminatory. This is particularly so taken against the backdrop of the changing world of work as recognised by the International Labour Organization itself.

Policy options

Employers cannot use the experience requirement to unfairly discriminate against job seekers. At least three policy options seem easily available to the government in this regard.

First, it can declare experience requirements unreasonable and discriminatory in certain circumstances. This would build on steps already initiated by the Department of Public Service and Administration under former minister Ayanda Dlodlo regarding entry-level government jobs.

Second, by legislation, the government could compel employers to recognise tertiary education as a form of experience, particularly in the case of programmes that already entail compulsory experiential learning.

Read in Daily Maverick:Four things that count when a South African graduate looks for work

Third, the government can work with the business community to provide the necessary experience for graduates through more innovative use of technology. This is in line with the recommendation already made by the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and would in fact be building on the leadership we already have through the Skills Development Act enacted in 1998.

In addition, an employment tax-incentive scheme has been implemented to encourage employers to employ young, inexperienced job seekers. These initiatives are to be welcomed. However, some challenges have emerged and require attention. One of these includes proper coordination between the various actors.

A crucial step in this regard would be the streamlining of the country’s skills strategy: at present, multiple departments see themselves as custodians of employment creation.

In addition to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, there are also two departments dealing with education (Basic and Higher). There is also the Department of Employment and Labour and, to some extent, the Economic Development and Public Service and Administration departments.

It is possible, therefore, that such a range of actors within the government may mean that the matter of employability does not have a policy owner.

In South Korea, researchers have noted the importance of clear communication and coordination as critical enablers for university-government-industry collaboration.

Universities, government and business, and other forms of employers must each recognise their role in the disjointed state of cooperation in which we find ourselves.

According to an annual survey by the World Economic Forum, South Africa’s score for university-industry collaboration has been consistently declining over the past decade, from a score of 4.5 out of seven in 2012 to 4.2 in the latest available report (the best-scoring country is, incidentally, also the most entrepreneurial). All three sectors must come to the table to forge a sustainable future for the country.

The government must facilitate a cooperative ecosystem and enhance efforts to remove the unfair requirement for experience whose chief effect is overlooking higher education as an experience-generating exercise.

Business must identify skills of the future and higher education must be responsive where it falls short, so that it can have societal impact.

Currently, prospective employers appear to abdicate the responsibility for preparing students and graduates for work. Each seems to want the benefit of an “experienced” candidate without taking on the necessary task of investing in the development of young people.

The inevitable loser is the country’s economy as a whole. DM

Professor Bhaso Ndzendze is Head of the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Professor Letlhokwa Mpedi is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of UJ. They write in their personal capacities.


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