South African IT graduates unrealistic salary- and job expectations

In a recent discussion about unemployment in South Africa ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa has called on companies to employ young graduates despite their lack of work experience with the following comments:

Employers need to understand that for our country to succeed, for their businesses to thrive, they must take responsibility for providing young people with the work experience they need.

They must realise that the only way to get work experience is to get work. This is a vast pool of skills and knowledge that is being wasted.

All fair and logical, if it were not the absolute opposite I see in my daily recruitment process: Many IT graduates have unrealistic salary- and job expectations – case in point:

The above was in response to a paid (R 8,500/pm or $650/pm) internship position which provides the candidate hands-on training over a 12-month-period with the end-result of several Oracle Java and Android certifications. Most of my interns will be promoted to Junior positions within 6-9 months (with salary adjusting dramatically) and it is rare that interns do not achieve all certifications.

The applicant in the LinkedIn message had no work-experience, applied to the job with no CV or other academic-/school-certificates. No introduction letter was provided and when I pointed out that the salary expectation was exceptionally high and that I would not consider the candidate, I was greeted with this (pasted verbatim):

firstly i applied with LinkedIn you simply could have requested for the cv which i had no knowledge that i did not send you my cv, you just decided to cut me off from the get go. companies differ as i just could not tell you straight up how much i want or the exact amount i want, we could have simply negotiated that and tell me that this is not how things are done, i applied didn’t i ? couldn’t you request for the missing document. do you really think i’d apply without submitting a cv though. you completely judging and denied me a chance without even thinking twice . here am i preparing to send an app only to be told i am no longer being considered, without any evaluation or checking my apps? no ways be real with me. any way goodluck to you too hope you change how you treat people maybe that would help someday .

Considering that the job-spec itself listed the application-requirements very specifically: “Submit a CV, your salary expectation and notice period! As part of the pre-screening you are required to write a simple application”. The candidate missed all the basic points during the submission. When informing the candidate about not conducting an interview (and providing reasons), I was met with attitude and entitlement.

Unreasonable expectations and how I screen candidates

I go through job applications daily and per week receive about 30-50 applicants. Pre-screening is therefore important as it just not possible to meet every candidate. My LinkedIn screening process is simple and filters out people who:

  • Can not camel-case their names. If you do not take pride in your own name, spell it in all lowercase or uppercase, you are out.
  • If your profile-photo is not appropriate for the job. It’s all good to pose in a bikini if you are a model or if you are posing as a body-builder for a personal trainer. Semi-nude profile pictures have no place on a career website.
  • Spelling. There is no coming back from “I am detail-oriented and play grate attention to detail” on your first line on LinkedIn/CV.
  • Invent job-titles. Don’t be “CEO of self-employed”

Looking at the South African IT-skill pool (and this does not only apply to interns), I find that many applicants salary expectations are way beyond the level of their work experience. Even IT staff in employment for multiple years lack the work-experience and basic technical understanding of simple IT related matters:

  • a developer with 5 years experience should know how to balance a BTREE or explain simple patterns
  • a Linux admin should know how to remove a crontab, change permissions or add a new user
  • a Java developer of 2 years experience should not take 3 attempts at passing the Oracle Java Associate certification (the most basic exam with a pass criteria of 65%)

For SMEs it becomes really challenging when candidates are looking for salaries on par with far more experienced employees. Add to this then the “South African” context which requires businesses to apply hiring policies which are not typically based on merit, but also need to be guided on being previously disadvantaged.

Youth must seize all opportunities

Youth unemployment in South Africa has dramatically risen over the last 10 years. At fault is the South Africa governments drop in educational standards (my son needs to exceed only 40% in mathematics or 30% in his second language to pass his matric certificate) and the poor planning of tertiary education (such as technical colleges).

Graduates are often heard saying “I don’t want that kind of job” or “This is not what I studied for” or “In order to buy myself this car, I need to get at least R20,000/pm”.

I don’t really have a reasonable or logical explanation why graduates are too picky, but I tend to think that the youth has been fed so many promises of job creation by the government, which has led to many sitting back and expecting jobs to be handed out without making any sort of effort.

Graduates and interns cost money

Graduates should also understand that a company will invest a significant amount of time and money exceeding an interns “cost to company”. This will not just include the salary, but also covers productivity lost from senior staff and co-workers during the knowledge-transfer process, training cost and general productivity lost during the learning phase.

Applicants should also learn that compensation is based on merit and not on “hardship” or being previously disadvantaged.

In my career over the last 20 years, I had staff-management responsibilities totalling several hundred people and during that period I have screened easily more than 500 candidates per year which resulted in eventually holding 30-50 interviews per year (I have seen it all: from a woman going into labour to a candidate with nacrolepsy suddenly falling asleep midway through the interview process).

For the last decade I hired based on merit and personality: If you had the willingness to excel and learn and you could articulate yourself in English you were already 80% through the interview process. The remaining 20% would be assessed during the initial 3-month probationary process which guides the employee through the daily operational tasks and provides the necessary background to become productive within a short period of time.

It will be a really tough challenge for the South African government to rebalance the creation of employment and stop making promises of job-creation and free handouts as this will never be economically viable. The entire educational segment requires a complete overhaul – it is not acceptable to produce graduates with mediocre marks (when less than 50% becomes a pass mark, we have huge issues!) and millennials should appreciate the fact that not everyone has to go to university. We need more artisans and skilled workforce – the bakers, electricians, construction engineers.

Sadly a large part of the South African work-force will be replaced in the next decade by robots or AI (petrol attendants, cashiers, waiters, call-centre agents) and graduates need to make a sensible career choice with some compromises in order to retain a fulfilling career going forward.

A follow-up with some stats

Since posting this article, I have received mixed responses ranging from “You have no clue what you are talking about” to “Don’t run a sweatshop” to “I would like to intern with you – I have matric, done websites for some small companies but really struggle to find a job in a formal environment”.

Let’s put some numbers behind what I am saying. To start off, just because you are a computer science graduate, does not automatically make you a good developer. There are plenty people who are good with paper-theory, but struggle with the most basic interview questions (try a simple 5-minute task of finding Balanced Brackets on Hackerrank).

Some numbers:

Senior Linux System Engineer

  • Salary range up to 75K.
  • 212 applications in 4 weeks.
  • 10 people short listed (6 discarded as they refused to do a simple Linux practical taking less than 2 hours)
  • Remaining 4 failed the interview. One candidate had all the Redhat certifications but could not do a practical test (changing an IP, installing a cronjob, resizing a file-system and enabling firewall rules for port 80 and enabling SSH)

Senior Java Developer

  • Salary range up to 60K.
  • 55 candidates in 3 weeks
  • 10 short-listed (of which only 7 replied to follow-up interview)
  • 3 agreed to write a simple webservice JSP app running on Tomcat (none delivered the project)

Internship for Android, iOS or Java Developers

  • Salary range 10K – 20K depending on skillset
  • 77 candidates in 3 weeks
  • 65 lacked computer-literacy, did not submit a CV. Of the 40 candidates submitting educational certifications (none exceeded 60% in Maths Core/Lit)
  • 12 short-listed of which only 8 replied after 2 weeks
  • 4 of the 8 did not want to do a practical test
  • The remaining 4 did not respond to further emails

My point of this article was never to question salaries of skilled and motivated people. My point was that many candidates (both graduates as well as candidates with work-experience) lack the drive and technical know-how to meet the most basic requirement of a job-application: Have a good understanding why you apply and what objective you have. Salary is important, but asking for a 30K starting-salary coming fresh out of university is absolutely unrealistic.