According to the Department of Labour, the percentage of black African professionals in Cape Town has increased by a mere 4% in the past 10 years. Where are Cape Town’s black professionals, and what’s keeping them away from the city? This was the topic of discussion at our recent HR Professionals Forum, with guest speakers Val Tapela, an MPhil in Coaching Management alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB); Dr. Elza Lourens, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University; and Prof. Magda Fourie-Malherbe, Professor of Higher Education Studies, Faculty of Education, Stellenbosch University.
First, we heard from Val who shared with us research conducted with black African professionals, executive coaches and HR Specialists, on the issue of challenges faced by black professionals in Cape Town. Hostility, lack of networking opportunities, an expensive lifestyle, feeling unwelcome – these are some of the factors frequently cited by black professionals as to why they struggle to commit to living and working in the city. Val encouraged us to be cognizant of the pressures faced by black professionals, reminding us that in a South African context, issues surrounding the retention of black African talent run far deeper than social/lifestyle anxieties. Black vs. white contexts are vastly different, and we need to acknowledge this to better prepare people to stay.
With respect to coaching, and following on from the theme of black pressure, Val said that coaches should not depoliticise people’s experiences, and that they should create a space that allows black professionals to be seen in their entirety. From an HR perspective, Val urged professionals to put social adjustment high up on the agenda, saying that we should not run away from the fact that socially, people might not be feeling integrated – adjustment should become a coaching goal.
Val’s research also revealed that HR should be more open, particularly with respect to the real cost involved with relocating. Although she acknowledges the risks involved with networking, such as poaching, Val reminded us just how important networking is for young professionals, as it helps them to build social capital and business networks with their peers.
In closing, Val said that the general organisational climate in Cape Town is an issue, as professionals who participated in her research shared that black people are struggling to adapt to prevailing organisational cultures. “Nothing changes until you do”, was a common refrain amongst black professionals who felt that they were expected to change who they were in order to fit in, and Val emphasised the need for business leaders to embrace the challenges faced by black professionals in Cape Town and create more accommodating environments. Val urged us to start challenging the language of engagement – inclusive vs. belonging, sympathy vs. awareness – as language in itself can isolate and marginalise people.
Shifting our focus to the challenges faced by black graduates, we then heard from Prof. Magda Fourie-Malherbe and Dr. Elza Lourens. Providing background and contextualising their research, Magda shared the latest youth unemployment statistics from OECD countries. South Africa is currently sitting on a youth unemployment rate of 51.1%, with 30.4 million people living in poverty.
Although graduates do find employment to a much larger extent than the general youth population, Magda said that there is a small but disconcerting rise in graduate unemployment, which in June 2017 according to the latest figures from Statistics SA, has risen to 7.3%. In a highly unequal society such as South Africa, she said that the promotion of social justice should include a focus on graduate employability. Referencing an article from University World News, Magda shared insights from Goolam Mohamedbhai, as to why graduate unemployment is of such concern saying that social and political consequences of high unemployment amongst uneducated youth can be serious, as evidenced by the 2011 ‘Arab Spring’ in North Africa.
The causes of graduate unemployment are known: poor quality and relevance of qualifications, the lack of attributes and competencies (‘soft skills’) sought by employers in graduates, and poor linkages between universities and the world of work. As graduate outputs are expected to increase, the situation can worsen and requires a concerted, well-defined strategy and action plan at national and institutional level.
Dr. Elza Lourens spoke to us about the transitional experience of graduates into employment. For many of the research participants, most of whom were first-generation students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds, the transition from graduate to employee was extremely difficult and challenging. For several students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the reality is that they are reliant on student loans to fund their studies – this means that on graduation day, they do not receive a qualification, as loans first need to be repaid. For some, this takes a long time, and they find themselves returning home where geographically, they are outside of major metropolitan areas with no access to computers, internet or transport. Elza said that in a recent article, it was estimated that the cost of seeking a job can easily exceed R500 per month – just in terms of resources such as internet access and public transport.
It was concerning to hear that for most graduates, online job application processes had proven tremendously frustrating as they often receive no feedback on their application. One of the research participants with an honours degree, reported that he had applied for more than 100 posts, most of which had not provided him with any response. This led Elza to talk about the importance of social networks, which emerged as a key method to secure employment. She said that the impact and importance of social networks cannot be overemphasised, especially when one takes into consideration that most of the graduates who participated in the research found employment through their own networks. As first-generation students with social networks that do not extend beyond friends and family who are themselves not graduates or in graduate positions, many found and took up employment that did not match their graduate profiles.
In closing, Elza urged business leaders and HR Professionals alike to acknowledge the complexity of the graduate to employee journey, saying that we all have a role to play with respect to supporting graduates in developing and expanding their profiles. The session ended with a lively Q&A discussion amongst HR Professionals.