How can graduates better their chances of employment in the South African job market?

Analysis in Brief | Youth unemployment affects South Africa’s economic and social development. Young people need to be innovative in finding employment opportunities. Community service is an effective means to providing relevant workplace experience and improving personal skills to better chances of gaining relevant employment.

The data was taken from a survey of 1425 respondents. The project was undertaken by IOA and Columinate in preparation for Voices Unite, soon to be Southern Africa’s largest youth-driven study. Graphic designed by: IOA


Key points:

  • In 2016, youth unemployment in South Africa stood at 51%, which ranks 4th globally
  • Gaining work experience in a competitive job market is difficult for young people who lack experience and practical skills
  • Community work offers a way for graduates and students to improve their chances of permanent employment, while assisting their community in a positive way

In On Africa (IOA) is currently working to expedite and encourage positive changes in South Africa’s youth sector by focusing on youth unemployment with several companies, organisations and individuals. Voices Unite is IOA’s upcoming initiative that seeks to offer South Africa’s youth a platform to voice their concerns, ideas and experiences and to utilise those insights in informing the way forward. As a preface to this initiative, a pilot study, with more than 1,400 respondents across South Africa, was implemented by IOA and Columinate, a research partner. In this pilot study, respondents were asked to indicate what issues/topics were constantly on their mind: first was crime; second, corruption; and the third important issue to them was unemployment (selected by 65% of youth respondents).

Youth unemployment affects the social and economic development of South Africa. Although the demand for higher skilled and educated labour has increased since 1994, young job seekers with a tertiary education still struggle to find their first job. Statistics from 2016 indicate that, in South Africa, 51% of 18- to 29-year-olds have never been employed. To close this gap between young graduates and those that can find gainful employment, community service projects are suggested as one way of providing practical work experience. Volunteering for community service projects is a simple and rewarding way to gain practical work experience for those seeking employment for the first time.

Work experience allows an individual to ‘learn by doing’, fortifies personal motivation and drive, gives a sense of freedom in decision-making, builds human relations and strengthens social values and cohesion. The competitiveness of the South African job market makes work experience essential for individuals, which most companies prioritise. The South African job market is characterised by structural employment, meaning that the economy is unable to provide or create the necessary amount of jobs for the state’s labour market. This is a challenge for young graduates as they struggle to compete for employment.


What is community service and how does this benefit graduates?

Community services refers to work that is done without payment and to benefit others who are less fortunate. Community service creates a more competitive résumé and has a direct impact on leadership and organisational skills for students and graduates. The experience allows students to engage with work and communities needing assistance, providing insight into some of the challenges these communities face. In addition, students become more sensitive and reflective to the experiences and lives of others, giving them a window into community realities. Studies have shown that students who participated in community service were better able to develop a sense of self and social responsibility through meaningful work with others, which assisted in creating a personal and collective identity. The university space also gives students the opportunity to not just be educational service consumers but to contribute to their wider campus community by participating in community projects.

Students working in a community vegetable garden at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. ‘The Wits Inala’ forum is a student-led initiative that aims to supply soup kitchens and local communities with fresh produce. Photo courtesy: The Wits Inala Forum. Available at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/inalaforum/photos/?ref=page_internal

In 2016, Deloitte in the US conducted an impact survey to find out whether volunteering and community service gives young graduates a better chance of employment than those without that experience. The survey found that businesses were 82% more likely to hire a candidate with volunteer/community service experience. Direct person-to-person volunteering works on ‘treatment leadership’ skills. This entails good communication skills, decisiveness, accountability, commitment and the ability to inspire and motivate others. Skills-based volunteering requires people to use their professional skills or unique talents to assist in community projects. This kind of service is also an effective way for students to learn certain business and organisational skills.

Tactical and technical leadership can be used to describe the kind of leadership skill acquired in both direct and skills-based volunteering. The survey revealed that over 85% of employers believed that skills-based volunteering improves communication skills, builds character and demonstrates a level of responsibility and commitment. Community service also assists in building a network of professional contacts, social relationships and other opportunities for employment, otherwise known as ‘social capital’. These relationships and the resources attached to them are crucial for increasing the chances of employment. In 2013, a large-scale study, consisting of roughly 70,000 respondents, was conducted in the US by the Corporation for National and Community Service. The survey aimed to discover whether volunteering is associated with an increased likelihood of employment for those out of work. The results indicated that volunteering for community service increased the odds of finding employment by 27%. For individuals who live in rural areas or have a limited educational background, participation in community projects increased their chances of employment by approximately 50%. The study concluded that, irrespective of economic conditions, volunteering for community projects will give employment seeking individuals an advantage.


Accessing community service projects and volunteering opportunities

Community service gives students and graduates an opportunity to make a difference in a way they see fit, while gaining valuable work experience for future paid employment. If one is unsure about how to get involved in community work then first find a cause that is personally meaningful, like social or environmental causes, amongst others. A way of doing this is use of the mobile application Going the Extra Mile, or GEM. This is a platform that allows volunteers to collect ‘gems’ every time they participate in a community project, which translates into money that they can then spend on airtime, petrol and fast food. The website Forgood is another South Africa platform that lets you find various organisations and causes that you can either donate to or volunteer hours to. These platforms help provide a simple way to access community service and volunteering work while ultimately providing a pathway to paid employment.

IOA’s Voices United pilot study supports a drive for more wide-spread community service programmes as an effective avenue for future work. Within the current economic climate of South Africa, the job market is expected to become more competitive as companies are less likely to hire more employees than they need. This provides students and graduates the opportunity to think creatively about how they are going to gain work experience to find permanent employment and exposing them to the realities of life in the community and the job market at an early stage of their professional development. Evident in the statements made by the participants of the Voices Unite pilot study, many would have liked more opportunities to apply and earn their experience. Community service programmes are one such opportunity, increasing the likelihood of future paid employment, while simultaneously providing necessary leadership and organisational skills needed for the workplace.



IOA is currently finalising pilot study research for our Voices Unite initiative, which has included over 1,400 respondents across South Africa. Voices Unite will aim to be the largest digital research study focusing on university and college students in South Africa. The initiative has been conceptualised in response to the need to address youth unemployment, skills development and job-readiness of graduates.

It is our hope that through uniting the voices of the youth, their insights and ideas will help inform solutions to the pertinent issues facing them, and the country more broadly.