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Successful Gen Z skills development requires investment, new mindset

Johannesburg, 15 Jan 2024
Ashley Pillay, CEO, Exponant.
Ashley Pillay, CEO, Exponant.

Skills development programmes for young people entering the IT sector cannot be treated as a ‘tick box’ exercise – they require investment, effort and a shift in mindset to be successful.

This is according to Ashley Pillay, CEO of integrated ICT solutions provider, Exponant, which has refined its internship model over the years to create a win-win skills development environment for both the company and its interns.

While the company has previously worked with partners on internship programmes, Exponant took full ownership of its student skills development programme last year.

Early learnings

Pillay says there were challenges and learnings from the outset.

After initially advertising the opportunity and receiving too many CVs to manage, Exponant then turned to Workplace Skills Development Partner (WSDP) to help them select appropriate candidates. Students working towards careers in development or project management were selected. The company admitted nine NQF Level 4 students aged 20 to 27 into its internship programme, aiming to upskill them to NQF Level 5 in a one-year programme.

Many of the students lacked soft skills and corporate etiquette, they were initially too fearful to ask questions and their stipend proved insufficient to cover transport to the office. In addition, managers and colleagues were often too busy to focus full attention on their training.

Pillay says: “There were a lot of lessons to be learned by both the business and the students. They came in fresh, with zero experience, so there was quite a journey to walk.

“There has been a lot of talk about Gen Z having different values, and how to adopt them into the workplace. We found that they did come in with some preconceived ideas – compounded by lockdown and work from home culture. We were adamant we wanted them to come into the office to benefit from knowledge transfer from their colleagues. But when we considered what proportion of their stipend would be spent on transport, we realised we needed to offer them airtime and transport allowances.”

This almost doubled the budget allocated to the internship programme.

In addition, Exponant’s HR department and business unit managers had to adopt new mindsets to ensure the programme was successful. Pillay explains: “We discovered in our weekly review meetings that the interns were afraid to ask questions or speak up. At the same time, managers were too busy to micro-manage them. This resulted in the interns doing virtually nothing for their first few weeks.”

Exponant leadership encouraged more active engagement by business unit managers, with more focus on the tasks they were giving students. HR also became more involved in supporting the interns’ professional development by offering them opportunities to move into areas they were interested in.

Wins and ROI

The programme proved successful: The students have progressed well towards NQF Level 5, and Exponant has employed all nine interns. The company is now preparing to roll out its 2024 internship programme, in which 12 interns will be onboarded in late February.

Pillay says big changes can be required for a successful internship programme: “It’s worth it. You may need to allocate resources and fund a lot of it through your own cashflow, but the benefits are that you are attracting new young people to your organisation. We needed to bring in new talent to give our company fresh perspectives. We now have young employees who are growing with our company and culture, and we can nurture them into our way of thinking.”

Pillay believes the internship programme will continue to deliver returns even if the interns move on to other companies in future. “My motivation is to create talent in our sector and give young people their best shot at a career in IT," he says. "Even if our interns eventually leave the company, they will likely remain a part of our network and evangelise our organisation. I think every business should be engaging and upskilling young people – it’s our duty to employ as many young people as possible, and to make it easy for them to integrate into the workplace. You can’t just tick a box, you must create meaningful employment for young people.”