When South Africa entered national lockdown on 26 March, 2020 employers, students and university career advisors shared one significant concern: how would the class of 2020 find and secure graduate employment opportunities?
Stats SA indicated that 31% of graduates up to the age of 24 were unemployed in the first quarter of 2019, adding weight to this concern.
Traditionally, South African Universities host on-campus career fairs between March and August every year. These fairs are consistently ranked in the top five sources of career information by successful graduate recruits participating in The SAGEA Candidate Insights Survey, but with campuses closed and strict social distancing regulations in place for the foreseeable future students would be unable to access them.
Embracing a digital solution
To resolve this challenge and allow both graduating students and employers to engage during the pandemic the South African Graduate Employers Association (SAGEA) partnered with 23 South African universities to host the VirtualGradExpo.
As the first collaborative event of it’s kind in South Africa, this online event sought to fill the gap left by the inability to host in-person fairs on campus. It gave students the opportunity to meet and interact with potential employers and find job opportunities in one virtual exhibition hall – at a time and place that was convenient for them.
According to Cathy Sims, Executive Director of SAGEA: “A virtual career fair provided the perfect opportunity for us to ensure that no student was left behind because of a lack of access to personal and professional networks. With the support we received from our University members, and graduate employers across industry sectors, we were able to give students across the country access to the most comprehensive selection of graduate opportunities our organisation has seen in one place.”
Of the 34 492 students registered to attend the VirtualGradExpo, 73.9% were undergraduates and 7% were postgraduates. The fair showcased not only graduate programmes and graduate jobs but work experience, internship and vacation programmes. For students looking to continue studying in 2021, the fair also featured postgraduate study opportunities, bursaries and scholarships.
The engagement took place via a virtual exhibition hall with customised booths for employers, as well as a built-in chat facility during live career fair days that allowed students and employers to discuss available opportunities, company culture and questions around the world of work.
Students were able to create profiles, upload CVs and apply for positions via the virtual fair platform, and participating employers could access the email addresses of all students who visited their booth – building up a pipeline of interested students to engage with during and after the fairs.
Participating universities were also present and able to give career advice on postgraduate courses and funding opportunities either through the universities themselves or partner organisations.
With 121 booths and almost 28 000 job applications processed through the platform, the VirtualGradExpo can be hailed as a huge success. “A platform such as the one we used attracted the most diverse group of students that truly represented the demographics of our country. It really levelled the playing field and went a long way to ensuring the graduating class of 2020 wouldn’t fall behind in entering the job market. For employers, it served to keep their graduate intake and development cycles on track, too, and we’re very proud of both these achievements,” Sims said.
Students thrilled with the virtual experience
Feedback from students was extremely positive. Amid the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic, one student said: “Today SAGEA has given me a platform to network not only with graduate talent managers but also with frustrated graduates like myself. I’ve been looking forward to this week ever since word got out.”
Student feedback following the event showed that being able to view information about many employers, and being able to view many opportunities, all in one location were the biggest value-add from the fair. The virtual experience was a hit, too, with 15.6% of respondents indicating this was the thing they liked most.
More importantly, though, the fair achieved its goal of helping students to find graduate opportunities for 2021. 55.6% of students that attended the fair have applied for opportunities they found there, and a further 31.2% have already been invited to participate in employers’ next selection phase. 16.8% had received offers to join graduate programmes, gain work experience or take up a bursary or scholarship within a week of the event. The platform remains open for students to access information and apply for opportunities, and registrations have reached over 40 000. “We’re very pleased with the results from the fair and grateful for the support from Higher Education and Graduate Employers who made it possible,” Sims said. “Collaboration has been such a wonderful tool in our community, and we hope to see more of these kinds of solutions in the future. We’re looking forward to bringing virtual work experiences to the table next on behalf of our employer network.”