Corporates, talk to the millennials

On the one hand, South Africa has a workforce surplus and, on the other, a significant skills mismatch. (Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP)

On the one hand, South Africa has a workforce surplus and, on the other, a significant skills mismatch. (Pius Utomi Ekpei, AFP)

‘If I was an intern, would I be allowed, as a millennial, to innovate? Would I be given the freedom to put into practice my solutions?” Vuyolwethu Makalima, a second-year student at the University of Cape Town, asked in a memorable moment at the Leaders 2025 Chief Learning Officer roundtable.

The likely answer from many organisations would be an uncompromising “No.”

But as business leaders, it is crucial that we step up and create an environment in which millennials are able to innovate freely and are made to feel that their work is highly valued.

The time has come to prioritise talking with future talent rather than just talking about them. This was the focus of the September 2015 conference in Johannesburg hosted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and Duke Corporate Education.

Eighty senior human resources executives from leading South African companies across a variety of industries talked about trends in talent acquisition and retention.

The conference, themed Leader-ship 2025: Building the Talent Pipeline, was unique in its focus on drawing millennials into the conversation about their integration into organisations.
As part of the event, top South African university students from a range of academic disciplines were selected as finalists of BCG’s Leaders 2025 Innovation Challenge. They presented their views on the issues of attracting and retaining talent today, as well as how they see the landscape continuing to change over the next 10 years.

Former president Thabo Mbeki delivered a powerful keynote address, encouraging youth to step up by highlighting the significant role that African youth have played in effecting change in the past.

Our student participants identified the likes of Google, Facebook and Uber as examples of companies that have managed to differentiate themselves and appeal to a generation often described as “wanting it all”.

Indeed, millennials are taking a different stance toward employment to that of the preceding Generation?X. They seek potential employers with strong leaders and mentors and values they can believe in. They also want sufficient time outside work to enjoy the wealth they accumulate, among a list of other requirements.

Many of the students suggested they are misunderstood – perhaps because they are perceived as being inexperienced. They believe they aren’t often given much room to contribute to game-changing conversations and strategies or contribute in a valuable way from the start. The reality is we all want change and we all want growth, employer and employee alike. It is the willingness to consider how business leaders and youth can collaborate to address the challenges that exist in the country’s talent landscape that will make the difference.

What is the nature of the challenges ahead of us? On the one hand, we have a workforce surplus and, on the other, a significant skills mismatch. This is true today and, according to projections from the BCG, will also be the case 15 years from now.

This is an interesting observation when set against the context of the rest of the world – there is a workforce deficit in many other countries. For example, Germany will have an eight million workforce shortage by 2030.

This presents a risk and an opportunity for the South African workforce. We see a risk that highly skilled South Africans may latch on to the opportunity to work in other markets abroad. Millennials are, and will continue to become, increasingly mobile globally.

In a recent BCG study on mobility in which South Africans were polled about the extent to which they would consider moving abroad for work, 7% were already living and working abroad, 26% said they would certainly move abroad given the opportunity and 32% indicated they were strongly willing to consider a move. A clear majority are seriously deliberating the prospects of the grass on the other side.

However, an opportunity exists as well. If we are cognisant of the needs of the millennials who are coming up in the talent pipeline, we can make the changes required to begin to close the skills gap and retain talent in our country.

The student participants offered insightful recommendations. For instance, companies should get more involved in the education process. If corporations want top talent, they need to connect early with students. We need to be on campuses telling students what opportunities are ahead of them and where they should focus if they are to have the best opportunities for employment post-university.

We need to educate students about the importance, in addition to their academic pursuits, of making connections and building professional networks. The innovation challenge was a case in point – many finalists left the event with job offers.

South African corporates also have an opportunity to cultivate a stronger internship culture. This has worked well in terms of improving work readiness in the United States and the United Kingdom, where longer midyear breaks enable students to take on longer internships.

This model allows students to accumulate almost a year of work experience by the time they graduate. Although the South African

academic calendar may limit students in terms of their availability to pursue such opportunities, the point here is that once again we need to step up. We cannot simply take on interns only to use them for photocopy duty.

Internships can be an opportunity for a meaningful and mutual learning experience for employer and employee and an opportunity for students to participate in a professional environment with other like-minded students.

It is crucial that our future leaders are solution-oriented, collaborative and innovative in their thinking. South African corporates need to fully commit to this cause and consistently work to stay at the forefront of enabling organisations to acquire, nurture and build talent in South Africa.

As Makalima so astutely put it: “There must first be a capacity for and willingness to change in the people who are heading up talent acquisition and management in these organisations.”

In listening to the millennials, corporations have an opportunity to give them a transformed point of view of corporate organisations and their dedication to change. The challenge is on.

Hans Kuipers is a partner at the Boston Consulting Group in South Africa

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