After I left school in the summer of 1996 (just typing the year makes me feel old!) I had the luxury of being able to relax at home until I started university. Tuition fees had not yet been introduced in the UK (meaning that anyone could go to university for free, not only the financially disadvantaged) and my parents were able to afford to pay my accommodation and living costs when I moved to Bristol to study, so I didn’t need to earn any money before I went to university.
However rather than taking the easy option I decided to register with a recruitment agency that arranged temporary work, and my first job was in a nearby factory that made car doors and seats working from 2-10pm five days a week. Not only was this a far cry from my days playing cards and joking about with my friends in the Sixth Form common room during free periods at the school where I studied for my A-Levels (the equivalent of Matric in SA, though most students only take three subjects), but it was also a million miles from my future life as a law student at a ‘red-brick’ university.
Red-brick universities are the oldest and most respected tertiary educational institutions in the UK in terms of the quality of teaching and standing amongst potential employers, and the University of Bristol was second only to Oxford and Cambridge for students like myself who were going to study for a bachelor’s degree in law. That being the case it was a strange decision for me to take a job as a machine worker in a factory where the conditions were hot and sweaty and I would come home every night exhausted and covered in dirt and grease.
At the time I tolerated the unsocial hours and poor working conditions as the job enabled me to earn more money to spend at the weekends, but in hindsight the experience helped me to recognise the importance of getting a good result in my degree in order to secure a better job and stood me in good stead for my future career in terms of instilling a solid work ethic.
You might ask what the story of a privileged British ex-pat has to do with the prospects for South Africa’s youth following this announcement of the 2017 Matric results, especially in the light of the country’s alarming unemployment rate, but I feel that there were several lessons that I learned during that period in my life that could help South African matriculants and graduates to find work.
Get a job, any job
One of the biggest reasons why school leavers and graduates struggle to find work is that they have little or no work experience. Most employers seek experienced candidates when they are looking to fill open positions and many young South Africans lack vocational skills even if they get good results at varsity.
If matric and varsity students start looking for temporary work or vacation placements before the end of their final year they will greatly enhance their chances of securing a permanent job in the future. At the very least the experience of applying for jobs and going to interviews will be extremely useful when they are looking for permanent work, and at best they could find a long-term employer.
Don’t be afraid of hard work
Every successful entrepreneur, from Bill Gates to Elon Musk, will tell you that they could not have got to where they are without hard work. As famous film producer Samuel Goldwyn (from Metro Goldwyn Mayer fame) said: “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” The same is true if you are looking to be hired by a leading company – a willingness to work hard is an extremely desirable trait for employers when they are assessing potential candidates.
Many young South Africans, especially varsity students and graduates, shy away from applying for jobs which entail working long hours or include manual labour or repetitive tasks. As unattractive or irrelevant as these roles may appear to learners who have their eyes set on high-salary professional positions, they build character and demonstrate a willingness to get your hands dirty (literally or metaphorically) which will impress potential employers, not to mention providing valuable work experience and skills that can help them get the job they want in the future.
Be prepared to start at the bottom and work your way to the top
Despite graduating with an upper second class honours degree in law I found it hard to find work after I left university in the summer of the year 2000 (also makes me feel old to write this even if it was at least in the current millennium) due to fierce competition for jobs in the legal profession. After being unemployed and claiming jobseeker’s allowance for six months I realised that I could no longer hold out for a high profile job in the City of London, so I went to my local job centre and applied for the first job that I found pinned to the noticeboard.
I was asked to attend an interview the very next day and, not surprisingly given my qualifications and the fact that it was an entry-level role, was offered the job on the spot. Whilst the role (telephone debt collection) was probably most people’s idea of the worst possible office job, other than cleaning the toilets, it gave me a leg-up on to the career ladder and enabled me to gain skills that I still use even to this day, especially when clients don’t pay their invoices!
Similarly many South Africans graduates have unrealistic expectations about the type of job or salary that they will get when they graduate. In the current job market, where the rate of unemployment is at an all-time high and companies are cautious about hiring staff due to the economic climate, graduates cannot afford to pass up jobs which they consider to be beneath them or where they will not earn as much as they think they are worth. The longer you are out of work (unless you are studying or volunteering) the less employable you become, and taking an entry-level or junior position will at the very least give you experience which will enable you to apply for a better job.
To sum up, my experience of getting a summer job in a factory taught me that no job was beneath me and the only way to get where I wanted to be in my career was to work hard.
Experience and qualifications can be earned, and skills can be taught, but there is no substitute for hard work.