June is youth month and there’s no getting away from the pervading sense of gloom facing thousands of unemployed young South Africans. The challenge facing our economy is how to absorb a growing number of young people into the labour market when 47% of the unemployed youth have less than a matric according to census data. Yet even matriculants and those lucky enough to graduate with degrees and diplomas have not been spared from the prospect of unemployment as South Africa’s economic growth falters. SA’s youth unemployment rate is the third highest in the world, with only Greece and Spain having higher unemployment statistics in the age range 15-24 according to the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Risk report (2014).
Yet in the midst of seemingly insurmountable challenges, thousands of young South Africans are carving out a niche for themselves in ‘non-traditional’ careers in South Africa’s burgeoning insurance telesales industry. While it may be true that few people would initially describe a call centre position as their ‘dream job’, many of the reasons that sit behind the occupational stigma are outdated.
This is according to Albert Theyse, Head of Sales at O’Keeffe & Swartz. “South Africa’s bancassurance sector - insurance products sold through banks - is driving growth in outbound call centres as this is the primary sales channel used by banks. Bancassurance has been particularly successful in making insurance products available to SA’s burgeoning emerging market of middle class consumers who require insurance as an important means of achieving financial stability, and especially to secure their changing lifestyles. For young people prepared to look outside the realms of traditional career choices, a career in insurance telesales represents access to decent work, skills training, work experience, further specialised education for those who put in the hours and effort, as well as economic and social relief for many families. Admittedly telesales is not for the faint-hearted or anyone looking for an easy ride, but for the dedicated and determined, it’s an opportunity to develop a fulfilling and financially rewarding sales career,” says Albert.
O'Keeffe & Swartz (OKS) is an outbound call centre that employs over 500 previously disadvantaged young South Africans who find gainful career opportunities with the company, selling up to 60 000 policies every month for simple insurance products via direct marketing methods. Established in 1993, its clients include the major banks and insurance companies in South Africa.
For 26-year old Kedibone Kgomo, a Sales Consultant at O’Keeffe & Swartz, her journey has been wholly unexpected, but tremendously satisfying. “I did not plan a career in sales and especially not in insurance. Now that I have been exposed to a world of work I had never considered, I am here to stay and I love what I do. I especially love the sales challenge of taking people through the journey of why they need to secure their financial stability in a time of a crisis. So many people take this for granted and think that insurance products that can protect them in their time of need are unaffordable or out of reach, and that’s simply not true. I think it’s a case of ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’- sometimes they just need someone to explain it to them in a simple and patient way. It’s so satisfying when you can change a client’s perspective and help them reach a level of financial security that they never thought existed for them. Making that difference is important to me.
“That does not take away from the fact that telesales has to be one of the toughest careers. You’re often regarded as a ‘nuisance factor’ by prospects and you put up with a lot of rejection, so you need a strong personality and your negotiation skills have to be top class to convince people to listen to what you have to say. I may not have ended up here by design, but what I do know is that I work in a great environment with a lot of inspiring young people from all walks of life and different cultures. The people and supervisors around you are supportive and challenging at the same time. I am learning new skills every day and what I love the most is that my earning capacity is not ring-fenced or pre-determined. My ability to earn more is within me and my attitude and is not defined by my educational qualifications or job description. Young people need to forget the stigmas attached to call centres. For me, it’s been the difference between unemployed versus financially independent, being secure, happy in my work and with a clear sense of purpose,” explains Kedibone.
It’s a view echoed by 27-year old Siwandisile Qolo, Trainee Sales Manager at OKS. After completing a National Diploma in Human Resource management and taking a gap year, Siwandisile found himself where many young graduates find themselves – qualified with no work experience and far too many ‘no vacancy’ signs. While job-hunting, a friend referred him to OKS where he joined in 2014. “I used to say that I ended up in my role by accident, but then I remind myself that nothing is ever an accident and things usually work out the way they should. My journey has been so much more rewarding than I ever expected. The training is intense and thorough but the environment is supportive and stimulating, and I think that’s what sets our consultants apart from the rest of the industry. Sales is a tough career so it is an industry with a high turnover of staff - many either see it simply as a stepping stone to get experience and then move on and secondly, you’re always under pressure to perform,” says Siwandisile.
“For those who make it, the opportunities for career progression are great, especially if you have an employer who places an emphasis on promoting and developing talent from within. I think what I find most gratifying is that your worth and ability to earn are not defined by your educational qualification status. Here, what you put in really is what you get out. It’s easy to get pigeon-holed into what career you should pursue and that certain careers are better than others. At the end of the day, you need to open your mind to all possibilities if you want to take advantage of opportunities out there. Something that always inspires me in this environment is that there are people in my team who have a matric qualification and did not have the opportunity to pursue any tertiary education, yet they earn much more than many graduates that I know. For a self-starter, this is an industry where attitude and aptitude are important, and where a lack of qualifications does not equate to a lack of success. It should give hope to many young South Africans who are unable to access tertiary education, that their opportunities to be self-sufficient and earn a good income are not defined by a degree, but rather their willingness to work hard. And these opportunities exist in professional outbound call centres like OKS,” concludes Siwandisile.
As we celebrate youth month, forget the limitations of career stigmas that are out there, and open your mind to all the possibilities. In closing be reminded of the words: There is nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it's going to be a butterfly.