Desperately seeking skills

There is good news for graduates: the market demand for their skills appears to be on the increase.

Results of an independent survey in South Africa shows that employers are set to increase their vacancies by 12% for starting dates in 2009 compared with 2008. The South African Graduate Recruiters’ Association’s (Sagra’s) Graduate Recruitment Survey 2008 is based on responses from 63 of the largest graduate employers in South Africa, including Absa, Edcon, Old Mutual, Sasol, Standard Bank and Price­waterhouseCoopers.

Nine out of 10 industries report a higher demand for graduates within their organisations, with sectors such as banking, mining and law firms expecting an increase of 20% or more. The accounting and professional service firms continue to dominate as the largest recruiters of graduates, representing more than 50% of the opportunities available and growing in demand.

The challenge for employers in general is that there continues to be a struggle to fill all the vacancies available, with 41% of the surveyed companies reporting that, as of May, they had not filled all their requirements for this year’s intake.

Two main reasons emerged – first there is a shortage of candidates with relevant degrees, most noticeably in the areas of the accounting-chartered accounting stream students, and second, that the demands in organisations had increased and had not been planned for.

Graduate salaries vary from employer to employer. More than half of all vacancies reported a starting annual salary of R75 000 to R100 000 in 2008. The top end, representing approximately 20% of vacancies, will see graduates earn more than R175 000 in their first year of employment.

Actuarial science, civil engineering and geology entry-level positions command the highest salaries in excess of R240 000.

This excludes benefits, such as relocation allowances, bonuses and further study sponsorships.

The survey found employers spend significant time and effort on marketing their organisations to graduates and find tools such as university career fairs, presentations and investment into their career websites to be the most successful.

Additionally the infrastructure costs of running a graduate recruitment programme must not be underestimated as employers have to manage large numbers of applications with an average of 800 received per company.

Selection techniques for processing this volume of applications include behavioural-based interviews (aptitude and personality testing) which more than 90% of employers use.

Case study or group assessments are common with more than 50% of companies using them to assess how students work in a team, how they process information and their ability to solve problems.

The challenge for employers once they have recruited graduates is to retain them.

Significant effort is put in by employers to ensure that challenging and interesting opportunities are presented to young graduates, but more than 50% of organisations feel that they still have work to do on their retention strategies.

With a global market available to any graduate and a shortage of skills reported in many countries, opportunities abound.

Any company not keeping their eye on the ball and actively managing expectations and opportunities for graduates will not be rewarded with loyalty if there is a perception of better opportunities elsewhere.

But the good news about employment opportunities is offset by persistent reports of graduate unemployment.

Although there are shortages of scarce skills, such as engineering and finance, graduates have to develop a clearer understanding of what is needed beyond qualifications.

Employers are positive when it comes to their evaluation of students who are proactive, willing to learn and cope with change, team work and interpersonal skills, but less satisfied with their business awareness and leadership skills.

Sagra believes it is important for students to read up on general business issues and actively participate in debates and discussions in this area on campus.

There is a range of opportunities available through business networks and student societies to stay abreast of what is going on in the market.

Similarly, getting involved in community and student societies on campus allows students to develop their planning, organisational skills and ultimately allows them to demonstrate an ability to lead a team.

Lindsay Perrins, a colleague from the Association of Graduate Recruiters in the UK, once said that “a degree is a licence to hunt” – it is all the other skills such as enthusiasm, team work, communication, flexibility, business acumen and problem-solving skills that gets you the job. Students need to provide hard evidence of this when they get to the interview process.

Key recruitment findings
The key findings from the Sagra Graduate Recruitment Survey 2008, based on the responses of 63 of the largest companies that employ graduates, are:

  • Graduate vacancies are set to increase by 12% in 2009, compared with the numbers recruited in 2008.
    Vacancy levels have increased in nine out of 10 industries.
  • The accounting and professional services firms are the largest recruiters accounting for more than half of all vacancies in 2008 and are set for a modest increase for 2009.
  • Other major recruiters in 2008 are retailers which expect a 2,5% increase for vacancies in 2009 and investment banks or fund managers which foresee a 24,6% rise.
  • By job function the most vacancies in 2008 are in auditing (TIPP) with more than half of total vacancies available in this career area.
  • The median number of vacancies in 2008 is 24 in companies.
  • The highest starting salaries are at mining companies, investment banks or fund managers and consulting firms, with median starting salaries of R190 000 or more.
  • The most common additional benefits for graduates include study leave or sponsorship, training for a professional qualification and pension schemes.

Just more than half of employers surveyed expect to give a ‘cost of living’ increase for 2009 salaries.

When combined, survey participants spent in excess of R34-million on marketing activities in 2008.

Behavioural-based interviews were the most popular selection technique for assessing candidates (93%).

Aptitude testing was used by 79% of employers.

Cathy Sims is the national coordinator of the South African Graduate Recruiters Association. For more information go to or email [email protected]

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