On Saturday 15 July 2017, a group of 36 HR and other Managers participated in mock interviews as their contribution to the Mandela Day 67 minutes of making a difference in the lives of others who are in need of support. Some of these HR Professionals were part of the membership of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP), the HR Professional and quality assurance body of South Africa. Two SABPP Board members, Maropeng Sebothoma and Mpolai Liau also participated in the interviews, as well as several other SABPP Professionals. This initiative is managed by the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. They already placed 35 000 previously unemployed young people into long term jobs through sourcing, bridging and matching.
As part of my 67 minutes in honour of Nelson Mandela Day, I interviewed three unemployed young people at Harambee. The first one had a N6 Certificate in Engineering from a TVET college, the second a BSc degree, and the third a Matric. I could not avoid comparing these three candidates. Not surprisingly, the BSc graduate came out tops, followed by the Matriculant and the TVET student, last. I asked myself the question: To what extent are these three youngsters, products of the education system, or to what extent did my own personal bias play a role in ranking them?
I then continued my reflection by considering the role of HR, Recruitment and Talent Managers as gatekeepers of youth talent. I challenged my own thinking about the definition of talent when I realised that according to the narrow definition of talent, only the BSc graduate would probably be regarded as talent by most talent managers. But what about the rest? What about the more than 50% unemployed youth, most of them disadvantaged coming from a poor education system and poor households, with little hope of finding meaningful employment?
What became clear during the mock interviews with 90 young people, is that many of them appeared unprepared for interviews. In a feedback session after the mock interviews, the following comments were made by the 36 managers who interviewed the youngsters:
- The CVs of the youngsters were not up to standard, some of them had spelling and other errors.
- Most of the candidates struggled to sell themselves in both the CV and the interview, for instance, when questioned about leadership roles (e.g. at school, college or community level) all of them answered affirmatively, yet this information was absent from the CVs.
- The youngsters focused too much on education and not enough on skills or competencies, in other words they can tell you what they have studied, but not what they can do.
- There is an imbalance between their needs and the needs of employers – most of them positioned themselves as “just want to get a job” while the employers expected them to “show me how you can add value to my business.”
- Most of the candidates were unable to tell us what their values are. These days values are key for most employers who want to achieve success in a fast-paced business environment focusing on efficiency, effectiveness and ethics.
- The youngsters omitted to add community, volunteering and part-time work as part of their experience, thereby incorrectly presenting themselves with “no experience.”
- The biggest gap was communication skills, with the youngsters being unable to communicate clearly about themselves.
However, the debriefing session also offered some interesting lessons for employers. In essence, it became evident that while young work seekers often have unrealistic expectations, employers also have unrealistic expectations. Employers expect a “perfect” young individual who can answer all questions in a professional manner and who can simply walk into an office and do all tasks with little or no training without making any mistakes. Thus, the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator challenges employers to reconsider current approaches of providing interviews for the youth in exactly the same way you would interview a 40-year old. Clearly the playing field is not level. The following guidelines are useful in removing barriers to youth employment, particularly from the perspective of opening up opportunities and accepting the need for allowing youngsters to learn and grow on the job:
- Calculate the average age of your staff. If it is 50+ your company is quite “old”, 40+ can be called middle aged, and 30+ will be a fairly young company, and 20+ will be a very young company. Decide if the business case for youth unemployment is adequate, e.g. in ensuring strong talent and succession pools, in growing your business in the youth market etc.
- Change your website and use social media platforms with stronger youth messages as part of your employment branding and attracting younger people to your business.
- Review your recruitment and selection policy and criteria to identify obstacles to youth employment. If every manager needs an MBA, you will not attract youth to your company.
- Develop a more inclusive approach to youth recruitment and selection, e.g. internships where younger people can learn from more experienced staff members on how to do different tasks (start with easier tasks first, and then progress to more difficult tasks).
- Use formal mentoring and coaching programmes targeting the youth.
- Develop a clearer focus on getting the balance right between potential and talent. The youth are often able to demonstrate their potential first, while talent may not be that obvious before you have not given them the opportunity to display and develop their talent.
- Use psychometric and other forms of assessment to remove subjectivity in selection by focusing on their personalities, potential and competencies.
- Comparing the youth to current employees who are more experienced and skilled is not a fair comparison, thus rather differentiate on potential and ability to acquire more skills.
- Change your approach to interviewing. Asking too many questions about work-related examples is unfair from the perspective of a person who does not have such a frame of reference. Rather ask questions that could test their ability to find solutions to problems. For instance, you can ask a question such as the following one: “Give me an example of a problem you experienced in your life and how you resolved it.”
- Accept the fact that an interview is an intimidating experience for most people, but even more so for the youth who have never experienced an interview, therefore attempt to create a more relaxing and non-threatening situation during the interview.
- When a young inexperienced person answers a question poorly, do not make a judgment immediately, rather probe more for better information.
- Bear in mind that for the vast majority of youngsters in South Africa, English is their second language and conducting an interview in English already puts the individual at a disadvantage.
- If you are serious about employment equity, focusing on black youth talent should be a top priority for South African companies in building strong youth pipelines.
Building on the above positive affirmations about talent managers as proactive champions of talent management and youth talent in particular, I realised how personal bias influences employment decisions about people in the workplace. For instance, consider the perfect CV received from a young talented individual from one of the top five universities. Such an individual can almost walk into a job. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we are often disappointed by the performance of the person who provided as with a perfect CV and a perfect job interview. Some people only perform during interviews, while their job performance leaves a lot to be desired. Hence, performance during interviews is not the same as job performance, yet we are making the mistake of disqualifying an inexperience young person who is extremely nervous during an interview, despite the fact that potential is not recognised.
In conclusion, the Harambee experience demonstrated the key role of HR Managers as gatekeepers for youth employment. We can open the door of opportunity, or we can close it. The challenge is to balance the need for top talent, with the need for accommodating a broader pool of youth who will not necessarily meet the profile of top talent. However, organisations also need reliable solid citizens – people who can keep things going in call centres, in administration offices and in security and other support positions. While they are not the top talent in business, all companies need them to keep things going. Thus, an exclusive approach to talent management ensures that the masses are kept outside, while an exclusive club of selected talent are offered all the best opportunities. Hence, realising our role as gatekeepers, there is a need for a more inclusive approach for talent managers to recognise potential and to identify and leverage opportunities for the youth to be employed and developed in our organisations.
Lastly, I would like to encourage companies to link up with the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator. They have a captive audience of young people, and their work readiness programmes play a significant role in preparing youngsters for the world of work. Let us open the gates, and provide opportunities for the youth to be employed.
Marius Meyer is CEO of the SA Board for People Practices (SABPP) and Vice-chairperson of the UNISA Talent Council. For more information about the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, go to www.harambee.co.za