On jobless graduates: Don’t blame the marginalised for their marginalisation

2012-07-21 12:21

I am an employed graduate and a fellow in the leadership programme of one of the world’s leading management consulting firms.

MBA students at the world’s best business schools aspire to work where I work and do what I do.

On a daily basis, I work on some of the toughest problems facing large businesses and governments, and have advised chief executives and managers many years my senior, both in age and experience. I earn an exceedingly good wage by South African standards.

One of the reasons my employer found me an attractive candidate is I am a graduate of Howard University, one of the US’s premier historically black universities.

Many of the most sought-after employers in the US recruit from Howard because they rightly see it as the go-to for finding black talent.

I dress neatly, write and speak well, have good posture and would like to think I have a firm handshake.

I share these facts, not for self-aggrandisement, but to establish I am presumably the antithesis of who Jonathan Jansen referred to in his “Open Letter to a Jobless Graduate” recently published in The Times.

I am not the lazy, careless, poorly spoken and poorly presented jobless graduate Prof Jansen takes to task.

Yet, I am profoundly uncomfortable with the hasty analysis in Jansen’s take on why jobless graduates struggle to enter the labour market.

Sure, jobseekers should make themselves more attractive to potential employers. The problem, however, is Jansen blames the marginalised for their marginalisation.

In all systems of structural inequality, there will be exceptional people who succeed despite their unlikely initial circumstances.

In the most racist, elitist, sexist or otherwise biased and non-meritocratic systems, there will be those women and men who, through sheer grit, talent and indomitable perseverance defy the odds to reach the very top.

What I don’t admire is when these accomplished people blame those who have not overcome the odds for their lack of success.

Many jobless graduates don’t speak good English, in part because they went to historically disadvantaged schools that didn’t enable and encourage them to master the language.

They often don’t understand the subtleties of being and appearing businesslike because their parents weren’t at the peak of professions, indirectly imparting knowledge of the professional world to them throughout their upbringing and around the dinner table.

They haven’t apprenticed and interned at successful businesses during high school and university holidays, as their parents can’t easily tap into high-powered personal and professional networks.

Yes, if they were exceptional, they wouldn’t be jobless. But any discourse around their disadvantage must confront the system that requires them to be exceptional merely to clamber on to the ladder at all.

What Jansen also fails to mention is very few people achieve success without a helping hand, and the occasional reliance on reserves of social capital. I would like to hear the Jansens in our midst talk more about the helping hands they received.

Often the impression given is that they did it all on their own.

I am only at the company where I am because of the intervention of a friend who encouraged me to apply there when I was retrenched, unfulfilled and looking for a career change. The company was front of mind for her as a good fit for me, only because she was present in the elite academic and professional worlds where it is a brand name.

I only attended Howard University because my mother wrote the application. She noticed I’d overlooked Howard, a well-regarded school which I had never heard of, and ensured I applied and was accepted for the fall of 2000.

I only unlocked my potential as a writer because my 11th-grade English teacher’s infectious excitement about writing aroused a latent passion in me. His positive feedback about my work gave me the confidence and pride to keep at it.

Where would I be without them?

Prof Jansen is as thoughtful a contributor towards highlighting South Africa’s education challenges as anyone. I’m not picking on him, merely using his letter as an opportunity to shift the conversation on achievement.

Let’s focus on giving aspirants the help they need. Let’s strengthen and expand learnerships. Let’s put guidance counsellors in every high school.

Let’s strengthen career guidance services in universities and, crucially, to the majority of youth who aren’t privileged to be in universities. Let those of us in civil society mentor and bring along aspirants in our personal circles and wider communities.

These are necessary, but obvious solutions. We also need to develop big, transformational movements to overcome these challenges.

We’ve spent a decade lamenting our skills deficit. Surely by now, we could have built a national, social movement which says each and every skilled person should have an apprentice? Every executive, every senior manager, every skilled engineer, expert, technician or artisan should have a willing youngster alongside them for a minimum of two hours a day to watch, listen
and learn?

We need to tackle the structural obstacles that require black graduates to work much harder than their white counterparts to succeed. We shouldn’t drop standards of excellence. Jansen is right about that. But we shouldn’t have the discussion about excellence in an ahistorical vacuum.

» Isaacs writes in his personal capacity. Follow him on Twitter @lionofjozi

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