by Mzimkulu Malunga, Business Day, 20 June 2001
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As debate rages on the unceremonious departure of former SA Airways CEO Coleman Andrews, some people have asked whether it was wise to spend hundreds of millions of rands on the US expatriate.
Were there not South Africans, they ask, who could have done as well as or better than Andrews at less cost? There is no doubt SA firms need specialised skills to compete in the world economy. While it is a noble idea and a government priority to liberalise draconian immigration laws that discourage the importation of skills, not much is said about ensuring that such a process is accompanied by learnerships designed to transfer those skills to locals as quickly as possible. Many thousands of unemployed graduates roam the streets of SA's townships.
When they knock at the doors of the corporate world looking for jobs, they are asked: "How much experience have you got?" When they answer they have none, they are told: "Sorry, we want someone with experience." It goes without saying that often the only people with such experience are white. So common is the abovementioned response that it begs the question of whether "experience" has become a new codeword for corporate SA to exclude young black people from the job market. In other instances, graduates are told that they do not have "appropriate qualifications".
This approach could be understandable if black graduates who did have "appropriate qualifications" were being absorbed reasonably quickly into the labour market. Those without science and commerce degrees are often the ones told they do not have appropriate qualifications. Yet a number of very successful companies are run by people whose academic qualifications were not in science or commerce AngloGold CE Bobby Godsell, for example.
It just goes to show that if people are given a chance, most of the time they do not disappoint. How is it that an economy said to have such an acute skills shortage can afford to ignore tens of thousands of educated people in its midst? Granted, the economy is not creating that many jobs, but there is no sign of learnerships that could, at least, prepare those with the education but without the "experience" for the job market.
Not so long ago, newspapers were full of adverts for apprenticeships for young people fresh from school to give them practical experience. However, in the post-apartheid era such apprentices seem to have all but vanished. SA needs what are now called learnerships more than at any time in its history.
Vukile Nkabinde of the SA Graduate Development Association an organisation for unemployed graduates remarks that SA has yet to find a proper way to make optimal use of its resources. "There is so much illiteracy in the country, yet there are 45000 unemployed teachers," Nkabinde points out. It can frequently, he says, take from six months to a year to place a black graduate with a degree in engineering. Nkabinde's organisation has about 5000 graduates on its database, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
What makes all this even sadder is that a majority of these unemployed graduates come from poor backgrounds. Their families, who sacrificed to put them through school, have high expectations that their educated sons and daughters will be able to put food on the table.
Linked to the issue of unemployed graduates is that of affirmative action. When that is criticised by opposition politicians or over suburban dinner tables, the focus is on young whites. Allegedly bearing the brunt of discrimination in the job market, they are said to be leaving SA in droves.
What is often unmentioned is that, even in these days of affirmative action, there are organisations of unemployed black graduates because there are no jobs for blacks either. Ten years from now, SA is probably going to regret not making good use of its skills pool. Who knows? Maybe today's unemployed graduates will have found jobs overseas.
Experienced though they might be, it would not be cheap to bring them back home.