Graduate unemployment in South Africa increases steadily year-on-year. New graduates, many with honours and master’s degrees, struggle to find jobs. The reason most often cited by employers is the lack of foundational workplace skills. Internships support the transition of new graduates into the workplace and enable the development of skills to increase employability and build careers.
The World Wide Fund for Nature South Africa (WWF) saw an opportunity to respond to both the environmental and social imperatives in South Africa. Through its Environmental Leaders Graduate Internship Programme (or the internship programme) WWF recruits capable and committed young leaders and supports their career development for key and critical positions to secure our natural and social well-being. The programme attracts new graduates from multiple and varied disciplines and from across universities in South Africa. It enables the development of skills that respond to social and ecological challenges in a holistic and interrelated way. For example, instead of a leader that works only to improve agricultural yield, the programme creates a leader focused on implementing successful sustainable agricultural methods, systems or initiatives to support food security and improved water stewardship and access.
In 2010, with funding support from the Fondation Hoffman Scholarship, the Sanlam Leaders for Living Waters and the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, WWF developed and implemented a structured internship programme. The programme recruited the first group of master’s interns, who were hosted and mentored in 2011 within various WWF South Africa programmes and units. The six interns – Dale, Daisy, Jaco, Megan, Simonne and Wisaal – were the trailblazers for the programme. After an exciting one-year internship, four of them found further employment with BirdLife SA, Coastal & Environmental Services, CapeNature and Milpark Business School. Jaco and Wisaal stayed with WWF. After one year at Milpark, having found her career interest in human capital development, Simonne returned to WWF as Graduate Development Officer and coordinated the internship programme. With this return on investment and the continued support of the Fondation Hoffmann Scholarship and the Sanlam Leaders for Living Waters, in 2012 the programme recruited Fikile, Imelda, Lameez, Onkemetse, Stephanie, Thabo and Matome. The first six were placed with WWF programmes. Matome, an LLB graduate with an interest in environmental law, was another trailblazer, as the first external placement with our partner, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER). Significant success with the six new WWF interns was evident in that they were all retained in project contractual positions at the end of the internship. Matome was also offered a position of articles with the CER on completing the internship. Capitalising on the success of the programme, 18 interns were recruited in 2013, still supported by Fondation Hoffmann Scholarship and Sanlam Leaders for Living Waters, as well as the WWF Nedbank Green Trust. Eight of this cohort were hosted by WWF and placement opportunities were secured with nine partner organisations, including the Alternative Information Development Centre, the CER, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), the Nature’s Valley Trust, Sustainable Energy Africa, South African National Parks (SANParks), The Green House and the Wildlife and Environment Society of Southern Africa. Over a decade later, the programme has recruited over 203 interns from across all South African universities.
Environmental Leaders Graduate Internship Programme
South Africa’s transition to a green economy needs creative and innovative leaders to tackle the complex and interrelated socio-economic and ecological challenges and risks facing us today.
Graduates come into the programme with novel ideas of how to respond to the increasing socio-economic and ecological crises. Law graduates are looking for new ways to ensure environmental rights are not violated. Urban planners are looking for new ways to design cities for low-carbon, cost-effective transport. Economists are trying to determine the value of natural resources and the costs of environmental impact. These graduates need workplace opportunities to explore some of these new ideas in a real work environment, while building the foundations for future careers and increasing their employability. The internship programme provides a practical and paid bridging experience for new graduates to gain valuable experience, develop key workplace skills and connect with professional networks to establish their careers for the environment.
Every two years, WWF recruits a new cohort of honours and master’s graduates for placement within the 12-month internship programme. This work-based learning opportunity is guided by trained and dedicated mentors who support the interns’ development towards their envisioned green career. The vision of the programme is to see these new environmental leaders step up and make a difference in creating a better world for all South Africans through improved sustainability and environmental management. Supporting the development of young environmental leaders also means making a significant contribution to green jobs that will fuel the green economy in South Africa.
Internship positions range from traditional green occupations, like park rangers and ecologists, to emerging areas of specialisation like the environmental economist, environmental engineer and the green architect. Applicants are selected for their specialism, coupled with an expressed commitment to and passion for the environment. Training workshops support interns in exploring and developing key workplace skills, such as ethics, relationships and communications in the workplace, employee rights and responsibilities, managing work, learning through feedback from performance appraisals and finding their next job.
82% of the interns transition into work before the end or within three months of completing the internship, showing their increased employability in a country with high graduate unemployment. Interns are placed in environmental management and conservation organisations associated with WWF’s work, and some of them are employed by these organisations. Through the life of the programme, 37 new positions were created through these internship placements.