How to stand out in a competitive job market

In a country with high unemployment and low economic growth, there is a silver lining. According to the 2019 South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA) Employer Benchmarks and Candidate Insights surveys, employers expect there to be 5.3% more vacancies for graduates in the workplace next year. However, competition for these vacancies will remain extremely high.

Ninety-four of the country’s top employers that took part in this year’s survey said they received over 2,000 applications a year, and a quarter of these employers got more than 5,000. The median number of applications per vacancy was 92, which is noticeably higher than in previous years.

“The competition graduates face is very high,” says SAGEA Director, Cathy Sims. Speaking to students at a recent careers event hosted by the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM) at the University of Cape Town, Sims said that while having the right qualification is an obvious prerequisite for a successful job hunt, employers are on the look-out for skills over and above what’s written on the graduation certificate. “There are skills every employer is looking for, not just in the finance sector,” she said, highlighting creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking as the most sought after skills.

“And these are skills employers struggle to find among graduates entering the workplace,” Sims said. “It is a global phenomenon.”

A study released in 2018 that tested how American graduates saw themselves in terms of workplace readiness, and how employers viewed them, demonstrates that these skills are a scarce commodity – even in developed markets like the USA. The National Association of Colleges and Employers surveyed over 4000 students and over 600 employers on eight competencies. These included work ethic, communication skills, leadership, and career management.

When it came to critical thinking and problem-solving, almost 80% of the students surveyed rated themselves as proficient enough for the workplace, while only 55.8% of employers felt the same way.

“I would say findings in South Africa would be similar. These skills just aren’t nurtured in our education system,” said Sims. “Only at a Master’s level are people taught how to probe and analyse problems properly, and then seek novel ways to solve them.”

Director of AIFMRM, Professor David Taylor, who also spoke at the event, agreed with Sims on the importance of these skills.

“In the near future, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning may do much of what graduates in the sector are groomed to do,” he said. “So employers are always looking for those skills that are beyond the capabilities of software.”

Backed by major banks and insurance companies, AIFMRM has a special insight into what shortages exist in the financial services sector, and the frustrations felt in the industry around new-hires.

“Critical thinking, creativity, and problem-solving are skills employers seek to develop in employees through various in-house programmes. However, competition for jobs being what it is, having these skills before you get the job is becoming vital for breaking into a career and advancing one. It makes a powerful case for completing a Master’s degree,” says Taylor.

AIFMRM’s MPhil specialising in Mathematical Finance and MCom in Risk Management of Financial Markets have these skills knitted into their fabric, he says. Yet financing a Master’s programme is a herculean challenge to many students in South Africa, and this needs to be challenged at policy level.

“Financing at the undergraduate level is relatively easy to come by, as the country is supportive of undergraduate studies. However, funding in South Africa is abject for postgraduate studies.”

According to Taylor, it costs about R8 million to support 50 students through a Master’s programme. “Unfortunately, for many, these skills remain nascent,” he said.

With only one applicant in five moving on to later stages of the hiring processes at top employers (according to SAGEA) graduates that cannot afford to extend their studies into a Master’s year should take steps to gain these critical skills by some other route, says Taylor.

The SAGEA survey also indicates that job hunting early can be a crucial differentiator. “It is interesting to note that many of the candidates who said they had secured a position with their most preferred employer, started their job search early – so they had the opportunity to develop a clear understanding of what was on offer – while those who did not join their most preferred organisation, were very likely to have left their job-hunting until their final year,” says Sims.

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