Disclaimer: this by no means is a theory that will apply to everyone. I’m very much aware that I’m speaking from a significant place of privilege.
Some underlying assumptions that are made (and not limited to):
a) You’ve been fortunate enough to study and obtain (or in the process of obtaining) a degree at a South African tertiary education institution.
b) You have the necessary financial means to not have to work for pay while you’re not studying (holidays).
c) You have decent networking skills.
This is something that I hear really often:
“Yeah, so I’m finishing my degree, but I’m going to still try and figure out what I’m doing next year”
“I don’t really know what I want to do this year. It’s really tough to find work”.
However, when I ask “what work experience do you have?” the answer I often get is “none”.
Factors that are a reality:
1. Economic growth is slow (at most), businesses are struggling and aren’t hiring as much as they should be.
3. Thousands of students in the country graduate with the exact same degree as you every year.
2. Universities in SA (at least in commerce) do not require us to do work experience during the course of our studies.
If you’re lucky, you’ve got the grades to stand out. However, I’d argue that even high grades is a dying commodity, as businesses are increasingly realising that there’s a significant disconnect between what we learn at university and what they actually do in reality.
One of my good friends, Gift Lubele, attended the African Leadership University in Mauritius. He told me the following:
In a 4 year degree, it’s mandatory to do 3 months of interning each year in order to obtain your degree.
Think about that: at the end of a 4 year degree, you’d have 1 year of work experience!
Having started working in Europe, I’ve come across students from all of the best universities in the world and the exact same applies. They graduate from university with work experience.
I think it’s absurd that the same doesn’t apply at most of our traditional South African universities.
Something a bit more realistic: if you study a BCom and dedicate 2 months of your holidays (each year) to interning, you’d graduate with a degree and half a year of work experience. That is significant. That is what will set you apart from Joe Soap who has a degree and 9 A’s in matric (no one cares about that, by the way).
Now you’re probably thinking “it’s easier said than done getting internships” or “where do I even start?”
Here’s my advice:
1. Of course the most “prestigious” companies will be the most competitive to intern at. Why not try small businesses? Start ups are looking for help ALL THE TIME. Believe me when I say, the smaller the business, the more you’ll learn. Yes, interning as an asset manager at Goldman Sachs looks super cool on your CV, but so does working at Jonga as a marketing intern who helped with a go-to- market strategy in Khayelitsha.
2. Position yourself as a proactive student who is interested and hungry to learn.
“I’m really interested in the work you do and I admire the values your business represents. I’ve realised that my degree that I’m studying towards is not equipping me with the skills I need in the workplace and would relish the opportunity to learn more practically. Is there any way that I’d be able to spend time learning from you and your business in my next holiday?”
You’d be so surprised to see how people are willing to help a young person who is determined to learn.
3. A controversial and privileged point: don’t ask for pay. If you get paid, that’s a bonus. However, the best learning opportunities will most likely not pay. This I believe is the key in getting through the door, because if you’re thinking about it as a learning experience, why would you need to be paid?
4. You’re never going to find your ideal internship first. Realising that a role/job/business isn’t for you is as important as realising that you’ve found your niche.
5. Great advice I was given: if you know you’re interested in in an industry, try spread your internships across the entire ecosystem. For example, if you are interested in marketing, try spending time at a creative agency, a media agency, a media company and on the client side. Again, if you’re only thinking of large businesses, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
6. Approach companies way before your holiday begins. My approach was finding key decision makers in various businesses and shooting off emails at the beginning of my semester. So what if you email 100? At least one is going to reply. Persistence and grit here is key.
The End Product:
Whoever is reading your CV when you apply for a job will be able to tell that you’re a proactive graduate who made an effort to get practical experience (on your own accord). In addition, you have an idea of how business really works and you’re capable of stepping up.
And lastly, you have a degree and your 9A’s from matric to add 😉