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Building A Workforce for the Future

What is your contribution to the workforce of the future?

As a young professional who’s entered the workplace not too long ago, I can describe my experience as eye-opening and at times, challenging. One of the major things I’ve learnt is the obvious, but often overlooked necessity to develop one’s professional identity inward-out. When we have discovered, understood and believed in who we are, we are better positioned to use our innate abilities and acquired skills to contribute to our environment and to the people around us. And when we have begun to contribute so purposefully to all that is around us, we begin to build an identity for ourselves, and a rhythm that pours into our competence in the workplace.

Building this identity and professional competence for ourselves in the workplace is no solo-job, and there are many personal limitations to how well we are able to establish this, especially when starting out. An experience most familiar to me is shying away from making a contribution to discussions because of feeling like my opinions or ideas are too naïve. I realize now the many opportunities I have missed to make my voice heard and allow those around me a chance to engage with my way of thinking. Another experience that I have is trying to complete tasks I did not fully grasp the instructions to. I have often cornered myself by not clarifying and seeking better understanding for fear that I may be perceived as slow and uncomprehending. These are a few examples, and there are many other experiences that young professionals like myself have lived through. Because of such limitations, there is a need for organisations to intentionally support graduates and entry-level employees by offering interventions that will help strengthen them in their role. And at some level, these interventions have to recognise the diversity and complexity of the experiences young professionals carry with them into the workplace.

The most common of such interventions are specialized graduate development programmes that are job-specific. These are incredible as they often provide structured development paths in acquiring hard skills specific to the role, and sometimes clearly mark out one’s progression in their career. While these are important, programmes which add a personal development approach in their interventions enable young people to look beyond the duties and tasks of a role, but the person behind the role, too. I have a personal testimony of the value of employers approaching and seeing you in view of who you are before your professional qualifications. A while after landing my internship, my manager told me the story of why I was hired. Her not-so-exact words were that they hired me because of who I was being, and not necessarily because of my qualifications. This has stuck with me! When I think back to those interviews, I cannot quite remember all I said, but it must have been more than my words that made an impression, because I know I could not have been the most qualified of candidates to apply.

This is important for me to retell because it has been the biggest proof in my own professional career that yes, the qualifications and industry-specific knowledge are important and play their part. But there is a way of being, skills and attitudes that potentially outweigh hard, technical skills just by themselves. And though these skills are hardly taught well, or at all in the context of formal education, they can be learnt as we navigate through life.

Looking at our current world of work, the most common and sought after employability skills span across a blend of attributes and attitudes that are mostly on the ”softer” side of our professional competencies. These include things like communication skills, adaptability, growth mindsets, team work and collaboration, leadership and taking initiative. In my view and from my experience, skills such as these are integral to any role and produce well-rounded employees who can thrive in any workplace environment. The issue though, is that most graduates and entry-level employees do not possess these skills at the level which employers are actively seeking out, and organisations usually do not have the capacity to train employees on these. These intangible skills have proven not only beneficial to individuals’ careers, but also crucial for productive and healthy workplaces, especially in today’s economy. I was extremely fortunate to complete my internship with an organisation that specializes in learning and development. I had regular mentoring and feedback sessions which gave me deeper insight into what I was good at and how I could leverage my abilities at work, and also what I needed to improve on and tapping into the support systems that were made available to me. It all proved to be an opportunity that challenged me to purposefully build my professional identity. It also pushed me to actively seek out opportunities to contribute to my environment, rather than be another passive employee in the workforce.

Organisations are as successful as their employees, and we know that a chain is not stronger than its weakest link. Graduates in any organisation may not be the strongest, smartest, nor the most competent at first, but with deliberate interventions they may prove to be of limitless value to the future success of your organisation. Young professionals are a well of fresh ideas and diverse perspectives. And as this demographic of our workforce continues to be poorly engaged, and their experiences largely untapped into, the world of work misses out on this invaluable enrichment.

Sisipho Makambi

Consultant & Facilitator