Graduate recruitment heads south


I was in South Africa to support Cathy Sims, founder of the recently formed South African Graduate Recruiters Association (Sagra) by speaking at its first national conference. It also presented an opportunity to share with Cathy first-hand the ways in which the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) has developed over its 36-year history.

It was my first meeting with Cathy, but within minutes, we were talking shop. Wherever I travel, I find that HR people quickly identify and share their common agendas.

As I manage the AGR’s own annual conference, I was surprised at how relaxed Cathy was on the eve of her first event. She was so relaxed, in fact, that she even arranged for us to meet up with Helen Bostock, vice-president of marketing at JP Morgan in the UK, and a director of the AGR, who is in Johannesburg on business and, like me, had been invited to speak at the conference.


At breakfast, we met Taryn Sessel from Unilever, Richard Warren, recruitment partner at KPMG, Tracey Rowe, HR director at JP Morgan, and Arnold Dhanesar from Edcon (South Africa’s leading retailer). Coincidentally, the first of these three organisations also provides board members for the AGR.

We emphasise the importance of constantly engaging with the members and pay attention to the added value that membership brings to them. Networking, promotion of best practice, shared resources to undertake projects such as benchmarking exercises, and representation for the sector, all feature highly on all of our wish lists.

Clearly, South Africa, as a culturally diverse and new nation in the developing world, has its own unique challenges. But in the world of graduate recruitment and development, the similarities of issues and concerns are remarkable – the quality of graduates, relationships with universities, buy-in from line managers, budget constraints and accountability – all common agendas, despite the thousands of miles that separate our two countries.

On arriving at the hotel reception for the conference, we discovered a pack of reporters and cameramen from the UK. Had Personnel Today arranged this reception committee for us? Hardly. The England cricket team were hidden away inside as they waited for confirmation on whether their controversial tour to Zimbabwe would go ahead.

The conference began with a speech by Nasema Badsha, deputy director for the South Africa’s Department of Education. I was particularly struck by how far the nation has come in one decade: the changing demographics in student profiles, the restructuring of the higher education landscape resulting in an overall reduction in institutions through mergers, and the financing of places for disadvantaged students, of whom there are many.

These are major challenges, but Nasema spoke with quiet authority and conviction, and it became clear that the Government sees higher education as having a crucial part to play in ensuring the economic and social security of this emerging nation.


I was the first speaker today, and I was on at 8.30am. There were 99 delegates registered and I’d come a long way for me to fail to impress.
Seconds later – or so it seemed – my journey through international trends in graduate recruitment ended. Days of preparation, endless worry about getting the content, the language and timing right, are over.

How did it go? Questions flowed easily – always a good sign – and the applause seemed genuine. The acid test, as always, is whether people come up to you over coffee, and I am pleased and relieved to say that I had no time to grab a drink as delegate after delegate came up to introduce themselves and discuss aspects of my speech.

I took time out to check with delegates on what they thought of the Sagra concept and everyone thinks it’s a great idea. If this level of enthusiasm and support can be maintained, then Sagra can only go from strength to strength.

For some time now, I have believed that there is a need for a global alliance of associations such as the AGR. There are similar networks in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Graduate recruitment has gone global, and there is much to be gained from working more closely together.

I once read this statement from Nelson Mandela: “My country is rich in minerals and gems that lie beneath its soil, but I have always known that its greatest wealth is its people, finer and truer than the purest diamonds.”

South Africa is a new and developing nation whose success will depend on its people working together, and HR has a massive role to play.

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