Preparing South Africa’s next generation of IT leaders: Microsoft partners with NetHope Academy to tackle youth unemployment

Current Microsoft Students to Business participants interning at Microsoft.

Longtime partners NetHope and Microsoft are collaborating once again to address rising youth unemployment in South Africa. Through the company’s Microsoft Students to Business program, Microsoft is helping curb joblessness that affects half of the country’s young people.

“We want to be locally relevant,” said Charlene Verzmoter, human capital development manager for Microsoft South Africa. “We want to see how we at Microsoft can address some of the unemployment issues facing South Africa.”

Historically, Students to Business has focused on technical training and job placement. But in a competitive and growing information communications and technology (ICT) job market, applicants must have additional certifications and skills beyond a diploma to stand out. Microsoft decided to bridge that gap by partnering with NetHope to help young people in South Africa. Through its NetHope Academy, the organization provides soft skills training, such as resume building, interpersonal communications and interviewing tips, and ongoing mentorship for program alumni.

“The value we saw that NetHope can bring is the ability to enhance the Students to Business program,” Verzmoter said. “We can give the students better skills. It’s how we can learn from one another, how we can change things in Africa by sharing stories and by implementing something that is really adding value to the lives of the people.”

Though South Africa’s high unemployment suggests a grim outlook, the reality is that business in the IT sector is thriving. What the industry needs is an influx of graduates with real-world experience and a professional skill set beyond an IT degree. That’s why, with NetHope Academy’s help, Microsoft’s Students to Business program in South Africa ambitiously aims to prepare a workforce for a growing tech sector by training 3,000 ICT graduates over the next three years.

Students to Business is part of Microsoft YouthSpark, a companywide initiative launched in September 2012 to create opportunities for 300 million youth around the world during the next three years. Young people, in South Africa and across the globe, are facing an opportunity divide — a gap between those who have the access, skills and opportunities to be successful and those who do not. To address these issues, Microsoft works with governments, nonprofit organizations such as NetHope and businesses to empower youth to imagine and realize their full potential by connecting them with greater opportunities for education, employment and entrepreneurship.

“There is a clear and growing gap between the skills of unemployed workers and the skills needed to perform today’s jobs,” said Lisa Obradovich, program director for NetHope Academy in Africa. “We can’t close our employment gap without first addressing the skills gap. NetHope is fully behind Microsoft’s YouthSpark efforts because large-scale collaboration is needed to move the youth unemployment needle.

“If IT organizations can find fresh, motivated talent that has the desire to work hard and the soft skills needed to be successful in the professional world, such as our students who are seeking employment, then they can grow their IT capabilities.”

While many university graduates understand the theory of IT-related work, they often lack hands-on experience as well as soft skills, such as interpersonal communication, that would otherwise allow them to seamlessly integrate and associate with their peers in a professional setting. By guiding the students through Microsoft certifications and complementing their existing education with soft skills training, NetHope Academy and Students to Business expose the graduates to a skillset that empowers them.

“Having a degree or a diploma in computer science is not always enough to meet the demands that employers are looking for,” Obradovich added. “You can learn the theory about something, but if you’ve never set up a network, worked with common software products, managed a database or had the opportunity to do hands-on, practical work, then it’s tough to navigate through the professional IT world.”

“It made sense”

Training workers who have ambition but are lacking a particular skill set is a familiar undertaking for NetHope. When Haiti suffered a devastating earthquake in 2010, the nongovernmental organization arrived to support repairing the country’s IT infrastructure. NetHope quickly noticed a disparity between the demand for ICT workers and the supply of qualified candidates.

That was when, in 2011, NetHope founded NetHope Academy with initial funding and support from Microsoft and other donors. The program helped recent IT graduates in Haiti gain the professional experience and training they needed to find employment. Since the Haiti pilot program, NetHope Academy has expanded to Kenya, Rwanda and South Africa, where the program shares a common mission with Students to Business.

“It made sense for the Students to Business program in South Africa to engage with NetHope,” Obradovich added. “It was a natural fit for Microsoft to take advantage of NetHope Academy’s assets and also for the NetHope Academy to build upon Microsoft’s reach to help build the professional skills of South Africa’s unemployed youth. Microsoft saw the difference NetHope Academy made for the initial group of young people we trained together, and NetHope is now providing soft skills, online training and mentoring to the students. We look to partner with those who are already doing similar work, who have a good command of the local market and who are working toward sustainability.”

Empowering youth for employment

Investing in Africa’s youth is a key goal for Microsoft. South Africa has the highest long-term youth unemployment rate among medium-income nations, a situation that threatens not only economic stability but national morale as well. To address this issue, Microsoft recently launched the 4Afrika Initiative, in which the company will play an active role in Africa’s economic development to improve its global competitiveness. The 4Afrika Scholarship program provides assistance that includes mentorship, leadership training and job opportunities to promising African students.

One of the biggest concerns among South African local and national governments is that if university graduates can’t find jobs, they’re likely to return to their families and discourage others from pursuing a higher education, regarding such pursuits as a waste of time.

“That would leave our country with a skills deficit and in a worse situation,” Verzmoter said. “If we can help unemployed graduates gain a job, they can encourage their siblings and families that it’s worthwhile to further their studies. Microsoft Students to Business helps motivate the students to go and study because there will be opportunities for them to improve their lives and find employment or an internship program.”

Through Microsoft’s relationship with local businesses in the IT sector, Students to Business is able to gauge the demands of the workplace, insight the program uses to facilitate the process from recruiting skilled graduates to identifying appropriate training and matching candidates to internships based on employer demands. The success of the program’s students finding employment after completion of the internship program has proven high as employers generally select the students with a longer-term vision in mind.

By working with NetHope Academy, which places more than 80 percent of its interns in full-time employment within three months of completing its program, the challenge of preparing an average of 1,000 ICT graduates per year appears less daunting.

“Based on that success and based on the demand we see within our partner and customer channels for ICT skills in the country, it’s almost a given that those students who perform well will gain employment,” Verzmoter said.

“This training helped me in many ways,” said Shawn Danisa, a recent graduate of the Students to Business and NetHope Academy pilot program in South Africa, who has since secured employment as a developer with the South African Qualifications Authority. “Microsoft and NetHope gave me a life-changing opportunity that I will always treasure. Not only did this internship give me a job, but it gave me a life.”

It’s not uncommon to see graduates pay their opportunities forward by recommending their peers for Students to Business and NetHope Academy. Word of mouth is among the most powerful marketing tools for each.

“Many graduates are encouraged to apply after seeing the success of the interns that have gone through our program and are now employed,” said Verzmoter. “The effect on the communities is positive, as it encourages students to go beyond a matriculation certificate and further their studies in a career in IT.”

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