According to the latest Afrobarometer survey, released in early March, South Africans believe unemployment is the country’s most pressing problem. Some 59% of those surveyed put joblessness at the top of the list – far more than the 39% who cited crime as the biggest problem.
At 21.9%, South Africa’s unemployment rate is high. And as the global economic cataclysm gradually makes itself felt here, it’s only going to get higher.
Obviously, joblessness is highest among those who lack skills. But the problem is that they not only lack the skills to carry out work, they lack the skills to get the work in the first place. And that’s where Cape Town-based employment agency DreamWorker steps in.
Run by Ronald and Tania Bownes, DreamWorker operates from Athlone, an excellent base to access the most of the Cape Flats – the sandy expanse of flat land to the east of the city where the apartheid-era government created a huge ring of townships. With three year’s funding from provincial government, they work with the bottom quartile of the employment pyramid – people that commercial employment agencies are not interested in.
With Ronald’s background in project management, brand building and management consulting, and Tania’s in advertising and marketing, the couple were previously responsible for reviving the dormant Community Employment Initiative, which they joined in 2006.
The venture took off pretty quickly and, within two years, it had attracted the attention of the provincial government, and was ready for serious expansion. But not everyone wanted to expand, so Tania and Ronald left CEI, which was rebranded as WorkNow! and started DreamWorker.
One of the first things the Bowneses noticed when they started working with relatively unskilled unemployed people was that the lack of skills extended further than work skills. These people also had limited work-seeking skills.
“We teach them the softer skills,” Ronald says. “Body language, how to prepare themselves for an interview, how to open up, or not be too cool. We teach them how to present themselves.
“We don’t do formal training, but each person leaves a bit more savvy and bit more confident.”
“I know they’re in a desperate situation,” Tania adds. “I know they’re helpless. We give them a sense of empowerment.”
What makes DreamWorker so different from commercial employment agencies is that it’s free – to both the work seeker and the employer.
“We don’t charge a fee, because we are funded by the government,” says Tania.
What sets DreamWorker apart from other organisations that help the unemployed find jobs is their focus on the individual.
“Every single person gets a one-on-one with an interviewer,” says Robert. It’s a simple but time-intensive system.
“We connect physically with each person,” says Tania. “We make eye contact, shake hands.”
Each job-seeker has to register by filling out a form. Some of them have to be helped to complete the form.
“We want them to give us as much info as possible to sell them,” says Tania. “We want to know them fully. We ask them for certified copies of relevant documents and written references if possible. And a typed CV if they have. Anything we can use to sell them.
“We then have a chat. We don’t call them interviews.”
Ronald explains: “Unemployed people often have no confidence. They come across badly. Sometimes they exhibit a false bravado. This is more an issue with the men. They hide the pain and desperation with bravado. The ladies tend to lack confidence, so they undersell themselves.
“We give them homework. We send them home with a piece of paper and ask them to write what their skills are, what they can offer.
The applications are then graded on a points system. “We grade according to education, references and experience,” Ronald says. “On the one hand it’s qualitative, but it’s also quantitative. We also give negative points, for example, for attitude, social difficulties, or a history of alcohol abuse.
“A lot of people come here very disempowered, but we say, ‘Start again. Help us to help you.’”
But the compassion is tempered with a healthy dose of pragmatism.
“We can’t help everyone,” Tania says. “It’s not fairyland, if they have a background of alcohol or drugs, we won’t jeopardise our programme unless we know they’ve been fully rehabilitated. Same for criminal records.”
Here Ronald laughs, and tells a story. A man came to them and, up front, told them he had a criminal record. Asked for details, he told a story of when he was returning from a football match with some friends. They’d had a few drinks, and really needed to – well, get rid of a few of those drinks. They were caught urinating on the side of the road, and arrested.
“We decided we could overlook that,” Ronald says, smiling. “He didn’t seem like a big security risk.”
During the interviews, they always ask their “big question” that helps overcome people’s reticence. Ronald says some people close up; they look away, they seem depressed. So one day, he asked someone, “What is your dream for your life?” And the response was amazing. The person just opened up.
“I sometimes sit with ladies of 40 years old, who can’t speak English,” he says. “As soon as I ask them the question, ‘What is the dream you have for your life?’ their body language changes, their voice changes. They become eloquent.
“Some of them come up with the most amazing things, but the most common theme is educating their children.”
Tania adds: “And there is such gratitude to people who have helped them – a sense of giving back. There is a sense of helping those who have helped them. It’s not just about me, me, me.”
Ronald relates one woman’s particularly touching response.
“Actually, I would like a bakkie,” she said. “It must be an open bakkie that I can put a mattress in the back.”
She went further to explain that, in the townships, there are many people who get sick or are injured over weekends or after hours, and they struggle to get to hospital. She would like to use her bakkie to drive sick people to hospital. During the week, she’d sell vegetables from it. That was her dream for her life.
“You know that the small income they are going to get they will share with someone else – their granny or someone. It’s a common theme. Help my cousin, help my granny, educate my kids,” Tania explains.
DreamWorker takes a lot of trouble to place people carefully.
“We deal with a lot of domestic workers,” Tania says. “We find out what they enjoy and what kind of person they are. Do they like children, are they chatty or quiet? And then we give prospective employers a few people to interview. They can employ them just for one day; try them out.
“It’s really important, especially with domestic workers, that you match people by temperament. One person wants a domestic worker to be a friend and to be involved in the family, while another might want somebody quiet and independent who will just get on with the job.”
But they also deal with corporate clients, the biggest of which is food and clothing retailer Woolworths. It started off when they were working in Hout Bay with the EIC. They had a really good relationship with the local store manager, Fuad Cassim, and have supplied Woolworths with a lot of cashiers and shelf packers.
“It’s a personal connection,” Tania says. “Fuad is a good supporter and marketer. He gave us a break, rather than using commercial employment agencies. And it’s paid off.”
She tells of one of their success stories.
“Lance Geswindt. He was a sweet guy, very shy, very reserved. He’d had a job cleaning kitchen extractors. He went to the Eastern Cape, and when he came back the company had closed.” With the country’s history of migratory labour, many black South Africans regularly return “home” to the rural areas to visit family.
“He was shy and didn’t have a great sense of self, but he had potential. He worked for us, just for a day, moving furniture. Ronald gauged his personality. He was young and hungry.
“So we got him a job in Woolworths as a shelf packer and he took to the training, the system. He took to everything. He learned cashiering as well, and he became a controller in the Hout Bay store.
“He’s supporting his mom. She’s a single mother, and a domestic.
“Not every story is a Lance. But we are here for the Lances. Without this process Lance would not have got into Woolworths. Fuad knew us, and trusted us. All the various bits worked together.”
“We close the gap between a relatively unsophisticated employee and a relatively sophisticated employer,” says Ronald. “It’s not rocket science.”
“First and foremost, we’re in the consciousness-shifting business,” Ronald explains. “Secondly, it’s about empowerment, and then about finding a job.
“We have to shift people’s perceptions about themselves. “
But if goes further than changing the way unemployed people present themselves.
“We need to get people excited about employing people,” Tania says “We need to change that mentality. Let people be part of a new process, a new consciousness of employment. If you can just employ someone for one day a week, that makes a huge difference to their lives.”
There are three levels of employment, all equally important, explains Tania. DreamWorker helps people to find work for a day, for example, clearing a plot of land, or regular work one day a week, such as domestic work or gardening or – the big prize – permanent full-time employment.
“[Provincial] government’s goal is to halve unemployment in the Western Cape by 2014,” Ronald says. “Our 2020 vision would be no unemployment in South Africa by 2020.”
“If 1-million families employ one person for R100 a day that would be amazing,” Tania says. “If you just employed one person for one day a month, it would make a difference. Just to wash your car, mend your clothes, whatever.”
Although DreamWorker is about helping people, it is built on solid business principles. When they first got into the game, Tania and Ronald spoke to Charles Maisel, the founder of a similar employment project, Men on the Side of the Road. They asked him how they could extend the model, and he gave them a simple answer.
“Give it away,” he said.
“So whoever wants to start it up, we’ve got the model,” says Ronald. “You’ve got to find funding, of course, but we’re available. We’ll help you set it up. We’ve produced a tight admin system. All the forms, processes everything. We can hand over the model and mentor you. That’s what we did in Hermanus.”
The Hermanus satellite office is funded by the Western Cape Department of Social Development.
“They’ve been going for nine months,” Ronald says. “Now we’re doing it again in Somerset West. “
He explains the simple arithmetic behind the dream. “In Hout Bay we created 25 000 work days in one year. And that translates into excess of R3.5-million worth of wages recycled through the community, money that wasn’t there the years before.
“So each office has the potential to facilitate approximately 30 000 work days a year, or more, resulting in excess of four million rand of wages back into the hands of the previously unemployed.”
DreamWorker is a lean, mean operation, Tania explains.
“Our office is tiny but the influence is immense. For every R1 the funder has given us, we create R10 worth of wages. That’s a 1 000% return. It takes a while to get there. But once an office is fully operational that’s what we expect.”