Don’t believe the hype: most graduates do find jobs

27 December 2018 - 07:00
Graduate students celebrating.
Graduate students celebrating.
Image: 123RF

Even as the Class of 2018 sat down for their terminal examinations, more than a few homegrown economists took to the airwaves — graduates face a jobless future. This is the most misleading soundbite about jobs for those who pass school or university.

The data is clear on a number of points. Most of our graduates find jobs. The more qualifications you possess the greater your income: those with a “matric certificate” (the National Senior Certificate, to be precise) earn more than those without one, those with a degree make more money than those with high school qualifications alone, those with a second degree amass more income than those with the first degree only, and so on.

True, graduates do not always find the exact job for which they are qualified but that’s not a bad thing; getting your foot in the labour market is a starting point. A good first degree should, in any event, prepare you broadly for more than one occupation. But in most professions students with degrees get the job they are qualified for — teachers, nurses, lawyers, occupational therapists and doctors go straight into their desired occupation.

So despite the vicissitudes of the global economy and the frightening fact that the South African economy is unlikely to grow beyond 2% in the immediate future, our graduates find jobs.

It is not a good argument to point to your friend Lennie who has a degree but no job, or the taxi driver from Congo who has a PhD. Individual cases cannot displace aggregate data for graduate employment.

Furthermore, the reasons for such persons not being employed at the level of their qualification, or at all, are often complex. Most (not all) graduates without jobs lack something that the degree cannot provide — like personal self-confidence, positive attitudes towards work, willingness to “start at the bottom” and work their way upwards.

Some of the “jobless graduates” passed with minimal marks or failed one of more years during degree studies, or are simply not being good in interview situations. A PhD without a decent job might be a foreigner without “papers” or a local without those broader skill sets.

Imagine a PhD student who in this day and age cannot create an Excel spreadsheet in his sleep, or cannot do an advanced search for bibliographic materials within minutes, or whose sour face suggests he lost a relative. I would never hire such a person regardless of the scroll under his arms.

In other words, the qualification is one thing but you’ve got to “show up” if you expect employment in an economic downturn and in contexts where the competition is fierce.

There is this thing called “attitude” that no degree can prepare you for.

Over the years I have looked to hire the young person who comes in early and leaves late — not the one who tells me about the taxi or train that came in late. I warm to the postgraduate student who, when asked to search for 20 articles on a topic I am studying, comes back with an annotated bibliography of 100 journal publications directly related to the subject of study. I would recommend the young lecturer who already had a book in press even though her doctorate was still under examination. It is a way of thinking about work that matters and that manifests easily in the course of a job interview. A good employer looks for signs of life, and you cannot make that up.

“Don’t you greet?” I asked the officer at passports control as I returned home from an overseas trip. Like his colleagues, they look positively depressed. “No, you must greet first,” he mumbled out of pure embarrassment.

A few minutes later I went into the toilet to be greeted warmly by a man who had every reason to complain about his sanitising job: “Welcome to my office! How was your flight, sir?” I dropped him a R100 note.

The passport control officer enjoys sheltered employment; he will not be fired for being a slouch. The toilet cleaner hopes that by being positive despite his depressing work, he could land a few tips. That’s fine with me. But at least show some attitude on the job.

A top fashion editor recently had to close down her shop. “She is a black woman,” tweeted one of South Africa’s most despicable politicians, and therefore should be supported. This is the kind of thinking that will sink the country. Nobody owes you a job whether you’re black or bald or badass. A good pass matters as well as a positive attitude towards work.