Building scalable solutions for economic inclusion: Maryana Iskander, CEO of the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator, takes a closer look


A report recently released by Pali Lehohla, South Africa’s Statistician General, shows that the country’s youth unemployment crisis is moving in the wrong direction. The unemployment rate for young people aged 15-24 years increased to 51.3% in 2014, constituting the largest increase among all age groups (Stats SA, Labour Market Dynamics Report, April 2015).

The solutions to this alarming statistic point to the need for urgent collaboration to address the quality of education and align it to market needs.

The more pressing question, however, is: What about the current generation of young people whose education and social circumstances prevent them from accessing the job market and whose education eliminates them from securing employment, especially skilled employment?

At the Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator we have, over the past four years, developed solutions to overcome these barriers. Our research indicates that young people identify a range of barriers to seeking employment: most indicated that there were no jobs in the area where they lived, followed by financial constraints like transport and airtime costs to look for work.

These young people are typically living in households of between 4 to 11 people, where the typical source of income is a social grant. If someone in the household is working, they are supporting at least four other people. We have learned that the biggest barrier of all is the lack of access to a network—many jobs are not formally advertised or advertised through social networks, which means that high-potential young people without this access are already at a disadvantage. Yet, young people are determined to overcome these barriers, even reporting their willingness to move closer to jobs. In one survey conducted by Harambee, 13% of candidates said they moved in the last year to be closer to a job. Candidates who found jobs through Harambee reported that once employed they contributed to household income. Young parents reported that as a result of employment, they could now afford improved childcare arrangements. These direct benefits of employment are important and support Harambee’s efforts to place 15 000 young South Africans with over 150 corporate employers.

Yet, creating a “network” effect is an important way to scale impact for the future. Harambee creates a “network” to connect employers and first-time work seekers. We recruit candidates where existing corporate recruitment networks do not reach, assess their competencies to match them to jobs where they are most likely to succeed, we then deliver high quality work readiness programmes that directly address the risks identified by employers, and work with employers to support retention. We are harnessing the power of “network effects” to scale solutions for young work seekers.

Can young people sell?

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator got into sales by failing first. In our first year of operation, we placed young candidates in sales roles and weren’t succeeding. So we took our sales bridge offline for almost a year to really dig deeper into sales environments and redesign for success. Now that we’ve cracked it, here’s what we learned along the way. We know from research that if a young South African can keep their first job for a year, they are far more likely to remain in employment for the rest of their lives. For us, this means making sure first of all that young people are the right match for sales and then bridging with the skills and attributes as well as the mental and emotional fortitude required to succeed. Sales is tough. You have to work long hours and remain positive through rejections and setbacks. Young people often must also set aside other goals in order to pay full attention to their jobs, especially at the start of their careers. But it’s worth it. Entry level sales people who hit their targets can earn upwards of R40 000 per month from being previously unemployed.

The formula: confidence, resilience. And then we add the training and technical stuff. We spend as much time selecting the right person as training them. Our selection methodology is focused on appropriate matching for sales. First, geographic matching has to be right as sales jobs often have low base salaries with a commission earnings structure. A young person without any financial cushion won’t be able to afford a sales job—no matter how well they sell—if they can’t cover basic transport costs from their salary before commission.

Secondly, we ensure that our scientific assessment battery measures a person’s aptitude for selling. This comes from a combination of psychometric tests, interviews by psychologists to assess resilience, as well as role plays that give us a more hands-on barometer of a young person’s confidence. Our experience busts the myth that extroverts are better salespeople. Our matching methodology looks for confident and resilient young people (extroverts and introverts alike) who can make the task, manage rejection, and have the energy to do it over and over again. The right match is important but not enough. A young person may match a sales profile but they still need tools to succeed in the job. This is where we use the Harambee bridge to let a young person “choose” a career in sales after they see how tough it will be. The Harambee sales bridge is designed to look for batteries, not light bulbs.

Does the young person exhibit the energy required for a long day of selling, dealing with rejection, and coming back early the next morning to start over again?

Can they sort out the home and family support required for managing very long hours of shift work including adequate childcare and reasonable transport expenses?

Is the young person ready to potentially delay their studies until they have gotten on their feet in a sales job?

The bridge replicates what we have learned when it comes to what young people need in the job:

Candidates sell products on the bridge to see what it really takes and if they can do it well. This teaches them how to wow customers, handle objections, be empathetic, listen and build rapport. We also get them to go out and buy and then debrief about the experience of being a customer.

They are given technical training on topics like objection handling, but are driven by peer competition and keep the profits of their sales as a reward.

They sell on shift schedules to make sure they are ready for the world of shift work. The Harambee bridge can be designed to replicate the shift schedules candidates will face in the job so that they can prepare themselves and their families for what is required.

Knowing what it takes to sell face-to-face or over the phone, we make a big investment in voice (projection, pace, pitch) and language proficiency and clarity to build rapport and empathy with the customer.

We also have to help candidates develop the other skills they need in the job. For example, many Harambee candidates have never used a computer before and they have to learn to capture data, toggle between multiple screens, and engage with clients while they are also selling.

During this intensive period our team of bridging managers observe candidates morning to night, checking to see if they have the energy, behaviours and emotional maturity to succeed in a competitive field.

Having successfully placed candidates in sales roles across many sectors like insurance, banking, retail, and hospitality, Harambee is showing that young people can sell, and can even outsell people with more experience! We are helping employers access a new pool of young people who can become the sales success stories of the future. That is a win for all concerned.

Hiring young people with a disability?

Harambee Youth Employment Accelerator has sourced over 1000 candidates with disabilities and share three lessons from the first year of our journey.

Lesson 1: Is Your business case clear?

Hiring disabled young people makes good business sense. Studies show that people with disabilities (PwDs) are often more loyal, less likely to job hop, and can connect extremely well with customers—particularly disabled customers. Moreover, technological advances have removed many obstacles for disabled people in their aspirations to pursue careers of their choice. And employment equity targets currently at 2% are likely to increase based on recently released 2011 census figures in South Africa showing the disabled population to be at 7.5%. This means that the demand for disabled candidates will increase across all employment sectors. Our experience is that employers want to hire disabled candidates but simply don’t know how to source, assess, prepare and support them for success in the workplace. Slowly and steadily, we are learning in partnership with employers what it takes to reduce risk to deliver success.

Three questions have emerged as key to ensure a successful integration of disabled employees:

Do I have a disability integration strategy co-created by senior managers, and is there buy-in from line management?

Are there any environmental, attitudinal or organisational barriers to integration?

Have I honestly audited my reasons for embarking on this journey—is it a numbers game or is my long-term intention true diversity in the organisation?

For example, recent placements of disabled candidates into the retail sector have taught us that while the strategic intent of executives is crucial, without operational line management buy-in the process stalls. Emerging best practice confirms the importance of preparing your teams before onboarding disabled staff—by running sensitisation courses and ensuring line-managers co-create the necessary job requirements to ensure they are relevant when implemented on the ground. Adapting the physical environment can be as simple as buying a taller chair, or installing a piece of software on the employee’s PC.

Lesson 2: Preparing disabled young people for work takes practice

We have learned what many employers know: Sourcing suitable disabled candidates is tough. We have found that building credibility and trust with the various organisations who work with disabled communities takes effort and investment, and is the only way to access large pools of candidates. We have ensured that Harambee’s reputation for ethical practice and our brand-power is starting to open doors for us—something we must commit to carrying through in all our dealings with disabled candidates.

Young people with disabilities suffer the same blocks to employment as do all youth who are locked out of the formal economy—with the added obstacles of their physical, mental or medical conditions. This means that we have had to adapt our value chain to ensure we are appropriately accommodating those who apply.

For example, our screening tools are designed for people with good vision, so visually impaired people struggle to complete our numeracy tests, or score very poorly. To get around this we’ve learned to adjust our screening measures so true potential can be seen, and invested in appropriate software to make our PC testing accessible. Additionally, we’ve widened educational requirements to include the 80% of PWDs that did not have access to Grade 12 education in the South African schooling system. Finally, we’ve learned that disabled youth have some incredible strengths.

For example, being blind can help someone be great at connecting with customers on the telephone, while physically handicapped people are often good problem solvers with lots of resilience. Mentally handicapped candidates even are often preferred for roles such as shelf-packing and sorting, where attention to detail and affinity for repetitious tasks are desirable. Deaf candidates excel in noisy workplaces such as foundries and panel-beating shops.

Lesson 3: Walking the talk

Finally, we know that to properly support employers in their disability integration journey, we need to make that journey ourselves. Harambee is advised by disability integration experts who help ensure our screening, training and placement processes are sensitive to the full spectrum of needs our candidates and employer partners may have. They also offer support in preparing employers’ HR processes and staff readiness for PwD inclusion.

We continue to adapt Harambee’s sourcing processes to accommodate the full range of candidates; we have broadened the education and age criteria used in selection to increase our pool of disabled candidates; and we have developed a customised intake process with psychologists trained to administer it. This has led to successfully including PwDs on bridges in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and East London and facilitating their placement with employers.

A further step is Harambee’s commitment to recruiting disabled staff into our team. We have exceeded the 2.5% employment equity target and intend to keep growing. A key investment was disability integration training and sensitisation across all of our teams across the country with specialised training for our core team dealing with PwDs. And we have learned what many in this field already know: that ensuring that disabled people are part of our teams and bridges is a great way to teach us all about diversity. That makes our staff and candidates better able to relate to people different from themselves in the workplace.

Where will future entrepreneurs come from?

If South Africa is to deal with its unemployment crisis on a long-term and sustainable basis, it desperately needs to grow the number of entrepreneurs it produces.

This is the only way for the country to start creating very large numbers of jobs, especially for its young people. But how does a young person successfully set up a small business from a standing start? We believe that employment can be a good route into entrepreneurship, as it gives a young person exposure to what it takes to run a small business before they attempt to start their own.

Our belief is that young people who work in small and medium enterprises (SMEs) may be better equipped, when the time comes, to start them. A third of South Africa’s established small businesses hired extra staff in 2013, a rare bit of positive news for the more than 2,5 million young South Africans who are not in education, employment or training. But while this is a good start, it is not enough to make a serious dent on the unemployment statistics or to deliver on the National Development Plan’s (NDP’s) ambitious job creation targets. Research shows that some 90% of jobs will be created in small and expanding firms and at present firms hiring less than 50 employees account for 68% of private employment, and 77% of all hiring, in South Africa. Some 70% of young people worked for firms employing less than 50 people, official data show.

comments powered by Disqus


This edition

Issue 58