In a world where talent is hard to find and expensive to retain, there is an untouched pool of graduates with amazing skills – and energy to match.

South Africa has a huge skills shortage, yet we output close to 42 000 graduates a year. Unfortunately, a qualification does not equate to a job — in a recent graduate drive for BSc candidates in the pharmaceutical industry, more than 80% of the qualified applicants had been unemployed for two years or more. Many graduates were underemployed and took up positions in retail, hospitality and factories just to earn some money and hopefully get some experience.

The questions begging to be asked are: Are these graduates really unemployable in their fields? Are there really not enough opportunities to absorb them? Or are there really unicorns out there just waiting to be discovered?

Angus Young, director at Prime Reason, believes it’s the latter. As an example, he says: “We recently employed a BSc graduate from the University of the Free State who had 16 distinctions, was a top 100 student in his matric year in the Free State and achieved a 95% pass rate for maths. How is it that this talented unicorn was overlooked by all of corporate South Africa, and accepted a position at a small company, just to get experience?”

In the minority

Some organisations have developed superb graduate recruitment programmes – picking the best of the best and bringing them into the organisation with a view to developing this talent. These organisations understand the difference between “how many seeds in an apple, and how many apples in a seed”. Unfortunately, these organisations appear to be in the minority and overall graduate programmes do not become truly embedded in the organisational culture.

A truly empowering graduate programme, says Young, requires a philosophical and cultural approach. However, the emphasis on BEE scorecards encourages organisations to “employ” batches of new graduates on an annual basis. With a new batch every year, everyone understands that this is a “tick box” exercise and no one is really committed to the sustainability or future value of the graduates – let alone their personal development.

As a result, graduates are frequently “boxed” into a position, with little scope to move or learn a multitude of skills. The problem is that once they’re inside the walls of the business, mentorship is weak and talent is shifted from one dusty corner to the next.

The disconnect lies around “ownership” – HR has initiated the programmes and made the plans that allow for graduates to enter the fold, while managers are handed graduates and told to mentor them. “Most managers are forced into their mentorship roles and rarely have the time or the inclination to do so, which means there’s little to no focus on how to develop the graduates or provide them with clear career paths,” says Young. “Graduates with exceptional qualifications and distinctions are given mundane tasks and little opportunity to master anything.”

Managers need to be truly committed to really change these young people’s lives, to give them essential skills, provide them with meaningful work, and ensure they become really immersed in the company culture. “Graduates that receive this level of input and commitment are the next generation of talent. For the business, the value doesn’t just lie in the potential of a highly skilled person; graduates cost significantly less than the experienced talent that’s being fought over in the market,” says Young. “In our experience, well-mentored graduates will very quickly deliver a level of output that far exceeds their years of experience. The big bonus lies in the loyalty and commitment graduates show to organisations that treat them fairly and help them become the best they can be. This translates directly to better retention, lower costs and greater organisational capacity.”

It’s true that graduates are hard workers. Higher institutions of learning simply don’t focus enough on work readiness. Graduates have limited knowledge of business tools and etiquette – they simply don’t know what they don’t know.

How to make it work

Philosophy drives behaviour. Starting at the top, organisations need to embrace the concept of graduate development for all the right reasons and work towards acceptance of this by everyone in the business.

Mentoring the mentor. Graduates need a trusted mentor in the workplace to give them experiential learning so they can explore their limitations and evolve their skills. This makes it essential to equip managers with the leadership and facilitation skills. A healthy dose of empathy and an understanding of the challenges graduates face are important. Possibly the greatest benefit to the organisation is the internal leadership capacity that comes from mentoring.

Building a graduate pipeline. Year three or four is simply too late to find the most suitable graduates, and a September or October kick-off will certainly only result in a first-come, first-served intake. Great programmes come from nurturing and getting to know the candidates slightly better. Starting an “insiders” campaign where graduates are encouraged to submit their semester results and are potentially rewarded for outstanding results can help greatly. Top contributors are invited by managers (not HR) to attend internal workshops, get mentoring on their year-end projects and receive updates on industry trends, for example. Effectively, the organisation becomes a support resource for graduates.

Technology and process. To provide sustainability and governance through the whole pipeline, selection, onboarding and development needs to be process driven, while delivered with a human touch. An ATS system helps deal with the volume, serial applicants and internal selection process. A standard off-the-shelf CRM system is great for running the insider campaign. Onboarding tools are fantastic for personalising the whole experience and keeping it moving forward.

“Cost-effective graduate recruitment is essential for the modern business,” says Young. “Graduates are eager, they are not expensive, and they are the resources that can transform your business in the future. The right graduates are the unicorns that your business needs. Now is the time to build them!”

  • Angus Young offers insight into all aspects of the human capital lifecycle. Read his views on recruitmentonboarding, the value of analytics and how to incorporate meaningful learning into corporations. About Prime Reason
  • Prime Reason helps companies unlock potential – intelligently. We provide you with a blend of market-leading talent acquisition and management expertise with next-generation platforms and toolkits to provide a boutique talent and HR solution that meets changing market needs. Find us on Facebook and LinkedIn.