It would be so easy to dislike Emilio Mumba. Not only is the University of Pretoria graduate in the middle of studying for his masters’ degree in computer science, he also holds down a job with global software and services firm EPI-USE. He’s also just had a paper accepted for publishing in a US journal of computer science (he can’t tell us which, yet) in the horrendously complicated field of digital forensics.

And he’s just graduated from a year of intensive work-based placements and internships, which he completed while he was still studying.

Instead of inspiring jealousy, though, Mumba is so highly likeable he was voted “most promising leader” by his peers on the Coachlab course.

“I came across Coachlab at a career exhibition,” Mumba says, “They said that they take on students while they are studying, they offer a stipend of a certain amount a month and they contribute towards the cost of your studies. That sounded like a lot of value to me.”

What Coachlab offered the 60 students from 10 institutions around the country who just graduated its course, however, is much more than financial benefit. The principle is to teach the fundamentals of business and the workplace to IT students, alongside the academic day-to-day learning. It’s a demanding process, which includes seminars, lectures, team building exercises and two full-time work placements. Unlike many internships, these placements are short-lived and project based, so pupils are expected to complete a business task in a limited amount of time working as part of a team. The recruiters are looking for candidates who can do all that and not let it affect their studies.

“Nothing gives me greater pleasure than seeing youngsters trained for the world of work,” says Charlton Philiso, a senior manager at the Media, Information and Communication Technologies Sector Education and Training Authority (MICT SETA) which provides some of the funding for the course. “Many people are working, but few have been trained to work.”

The issue, says Philiso, is that it often takes graduates with strong academic skills a long time to adjust to working for a company after they leave college – and businesses are, on the whole, not very good at keeping new recruits inspired. All that youthful energy and vision often meets with resistance among older staff, or is soon worn out by being put to use on the making-a-cup-of-tea run.

Philemon Nkosi, looking to start a consultancy for farmers.
Philemon Nkosi, looking to start a consultancy for farmers.

“It’s about instilling the importance of vision, getting young people to say ‘this is where I want to be in five, ten years time.”

Philiso is keen to point out that while various SETA institutions have had difficulties in the past with resource management and value for money, over its eight year history Coachlab has consistently scored well in audit reports.

“We partner with institutions like Innovation Hub [in Pretoria],” he explains, “So we know that every cent will be accounted for and outcomes can be measured.”

Unlike many student development programs, at Coachlab the emphasis isn’t on entrepreneurialism per se, although some do go on to start their own businesses. Mixo Ngoveni, founder of Geekulcha, graduated last year. This year’s first start-up comes courtesy of Philemon Nkosi, a student of Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) who has returned to his home in Mpumalanga to start Hlubi Technology, a firm which specialises in business solutions for small scale farmers.

“My family background is in construction and farming,” says Nkosi, “What I really got out of Coachlab was the business skills rather than the IT side of things. Now I’m working with a customer creating time management systems – it’s a lot of work.”

One very pleasing aspect of Coachlab is that it has a roughly equal split of male and female students. Indeed, at North West University, which joined the scheme this year, there are more female than male graduates of the course.

“Through Coachlab you get the opportunity to learn that there’s balance,” says Rosalinah Genu, “They treat you the same whether you’re a woman or a man.”

Roselinah Genu and Sandile Nonjola of North West University
Roselinah Genu and Sandile Nonjola of North West University

Most students on the Coachlab program come from Gauteng, and the course orbits the twin suns of Innovation Hub in Pretoria and the Johannesburg Centre for Software Excellence (JCSE) which manage the relationships with businesses who offer mentorships to the trainees. Acting head of the Gauteng Department of Economic Development, Albert Channee, says that the program will expanded over the next few years as part of a drive to ready the province for the arrival of the new ‘smart city’ in Modderfontein.

According to Chanee, there will be some 154 000 jobs out of the 200 000 promised in the Modderfontein developments as a result of Chinese investment will be IT related. The biggest challenge to expanding Coachlab and similar programs, he says, is a desperate shortage of private sector businesses offering work placements for students.

In many similar programs, Chanee says, government agencies are forced to take on interns purely to make up numbers – a situation which benefits no-one. In one program, 6 500 young graduates were enrolled in an employment skills program, 4 000 of whom ended up in government agencies.

The Department of Trade and Industry is looking at bolstering incentives to private businesses to encourage more companies to open their doors to trainees.

While South Africa does have a monumental problem with youth unemployment, the size of the crisis in graduate unemployment is somewhat Coachlab, even if it doubles in size over the next two years, can only cater for a very small proportion of graduates – and there’s some debate about how big a problem South Africa has with graduate unemployment – but it is an impressive model for work-based mentorships in general. For the students, perhaps the most important benefit is the level of confidence that most say they finish the course with.

“Coachlab has taught me to take advantage of my opportunities,” says newly minted graduate Nkateko Maimane says to applause from her cohort, “And be confident enough to sit down with managers and talk about where I want to go and what sort of projects I want to work on.”

[Main image – Emilio Mumba]