The Big Read: Poor job seekers need their own old boys network
James is a high school student at a leading private school in Cape Town or Johannesburg.
His academic record is decidedly average and none of his teachers expect him to do anything significant with his life. Jimmy, as his friends call him, does little to exert himself in anything nor does he need to.
For Jimmy's father is a wealthy businessman in the city. So, as the final year of schooling comes to an end, Jimmy's father calls one or two business friends.
"My son James is finishing school but his results are below average. I don't understand his low performance but my wife assures me the boy is my son. Can I send him over to you? I would appreciate it if you could sort him out."
Across South Africa boys who grow up in privilege get jobs because of these connections. Your father knows influential people who will return or seek a favour by giving you a foot in the door.
The most important obstacle facing disadvantaged youth, even those with degrees, is that they do not have wealthy or accomplished fathers, or mothers, who can connect them to networks that could mean the difference between a great career and serial unemployment.
In this case the father or mother simply do not know prominent and influential people who could give the job seeker a hand up.
Yes I know, everybody should apply for the single job advertised in the newspaper and hope for the best. But that's the bare minimum and most people do not get jobs because of a newspaper ad.
Somebody calls an accounting firm and asks about summer internships for a youngster they know. Another calls a law firm and inquires about clerkships for a promising graduate.
Those who know a doctor in private practice ask if she needs a part-time assistant since you know a student interested in pursuing a career in the health sciences.
The thing is, you need to have knowledge about what these opportunities are and that is why a father without schooling or a mother working in a factory has no way of knowing what those powerful connecting paths are that takes a young person from job anxiety to career security.
Those of us who are first- generation graduates in good jobs have a solemn responsibility to actively serve as connectors for poor, talented students to find the best careers in the public and private sectors, or how to start your own job.
This means spending time on the telephone introducing the best talent for purposes of an interview. It means coaching young stars about the unwritten rules for landing a job in a tough labour market.
Too many of us, having reached our goals, tend to become self-absorbed, even selfish, restricting the duty to care.
Later this year I plan to start a group consisting of the most accomplished friends whose sole duty is to run workshops, lectures and seminars with talented youth who have no parents or whose parents remain outside of these networks of influence.
Our job will be to introduce talented youth to individuals we know in companies, public entities and the range of professions. By the time these young people graduate with their first degrees they would already have spent time working as interns and assistants - even if this work was for free and done only for experience.
In other words, we will serve as bridges from school into the real world.
Universities are ideally placed to serve as connectors but too many higher- education institutions think that the occasional career fair on campus is enough.
Here's an idea: instead of seeing your alumni only as human ATMs to boost revenue streams, how about targeting the most successful ones to serve as connectors for newer graduates entering the workplace?
Use older alumni to offer job exposure, internship opportunities and on-site advice to graduates from their university.
For students without James' privilege, such alumni could be the ideal mentors for talented youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
This proposal must not be confused with nepotism or favouritism of any kind. All job seekers deserve an equal chance at landing the same job in a competitive marketplace.
What is being proposed is merely an attempt at levelling the playing field by opening up opportunities for talented youth whose socioeconomic status alone keeps them ignorant of these powerful, connecting networks.