You must have heard the claim that black professionals earn more than their white counterparts. The assumption is that a black graduate engineer with five years of experience will demand a package in excess of that paid to a similar white graduate engineer and, in today's seller's market, will often find his demands met.
Is this true, or is it a mistaken perception, a new mythology?
Let's consider a number of other related claims: Black professionals are highly mobile and they hop from job to job. True or false? How about the assertion that black professionals are technically weak - they're very theoretical, good at talk, but do not deliver the results. We hear that one often lately.
Or how about the suggestion that "they" have a chip on their shoulders, are very demanding, do not want to get their hands dirty and certainly do not want to go through the ranks like "we" had to.
Are these perceptions based on reality?
Yes, black professionals are often demanding, impatient and theoretical rather than practical, and highly mobile in the business community. Yes, "they" often do have what whites consider to be a "chip on their shoulders", and yes, they often do not want to go through the ranks.
No, black professionals do not usually earn more than their white counterparts - they invariably earn less. Sometimes they earn more, but not nearly as often as the new mythology would have us believe.
Let us try to separate mythology from fact. The first principle to note is that black professionals, especially those in hard skilled areas such as engineering, finance, sales management and computers, are a very limited resource. Apartheid has been incredibly successful in ensuring this. The educational system, which most black South Africans endure, defies belief in the degree of its confusion, impoverishment, overcrowding and lack of achievement.
Given the most rosy scenario, funded by endless millions of government finance, it is still likely that the average black child of this generation and the next will not receive an education to match that of a white "government school".
We would need 300 new schools and about 8 000 new teachers every year to cope with the demand for education. Consequently, there are relatively few well-educated black South Africans. Those who survived the Bantu education system and went on to obtain degrees and postgraduate qualifications are a small, select minority, characterised by brains, resilience, perseverance and utter determination.
Take, for example, a black child from a village in Zululand who speaks Zulu until he goes to grade one, then studies in a new language (English) at an impoverished school. He obtains a B Sc and an M Sc in mechanical engineering. He's made it! He's at the pinnacle of achievement and has risen far, far above his peers.
It is easy to see why he might well be demanding and impatient as he enters the corporate employment community. He may very well not want to start at the bottom and go "through the ranks" and "get his hands dirty". We are not suggesting that he is right or wrong. But it is simple to see what his attitude might be when offered a job as a graduate "trainee". What! Starting all over!
White managers find themselves increasingly encountering the black professional with the "chip on his shoulder" who seems hypersensitive to any insinuation of needing training, career planning, mentorship. That black professional may easily read a paternalistic racial stereotype into these scenarios, and react with suspicion and anger. Remember - he is the cream of the crop, the top fraction of percentile, the resilient perseverer, the determined survivor of apartheid, poverty, deprivation, and adversity.
It is not difficult to understand his cynicism when faced with a corporate mindset that knows virtually nothing of what he has had to survive (most SA whites have never set foot in a black township) and gives him no credit for his achievement, seeing him as "no different" from a white graduate, and not wanting to practice "reverse discrimination".
White professionals have real jobs - black professionals hear about training and career planning. The conflict of expectations is evident.
The corporate expectation is that the black newcomer will "get to know" the company's culture, products, processes. Everyone is keen to help, monitor, guide, develop the black recruit, to make sure the experience works.
Nice motives, great intentions - but the result is often that black professionals feel they are patronised and are "joining the school from which we never graduate".
A major production facility in the Cape offered a black graduate mechanical engineer a job recently as "assistant to the fitter". The plan was that he would spend six months with the artisan, carrying his tools, getting his "hands dirty", at R560 a week. Then in six months' time, the company would review his progress and see where to put him. It is not difficult to see how that job offer infuriated the black engineer.
The factory felt it would be doing the "theoretical" black engineer a favour. He saw them as perpetuating "baasskap" and turned them down, saying that they were racist and would never have made such a proposition to a white graduate engineer. The company thought he had a "chip on his shoulder" and had unrealistic expectations.
This contemporary dilemma calls for white managers to re-examine paradigms, alter them accordingly, and acknowledge that black professionals are rare, aggressively career minded, ambitious and fast tracked. If a black engineer's job aspirations are not met, he (like his white counterpart) will swap jobs (more easily than the white engineer) in search of real work, real responsibility. His previous company will be left muttering about "job hoppers" who do not want to put in their time and earn their stripes.
Black professionals are demanding, impatient and mobile. But are they more highly paid than their white counterparts? Certainly not. In fact, blacks with similar qualifications and age group seldom approximate what white managers earn.
Yes, there are a few highly visible black managers with fancy cars, but can you name any black MDs in mainstream SA business? Have you ever heard of a black South African executive director of a company other that human resources or public affairs, which few take seriously?
Remuneration is proportionate directly to one's status in the corporate hierarchy. MDs get megabucks, perks, share options. Executive directors likewise. But there are virtually no senior black professionals who are executive directors or GMs.
Companies pay lip service to affirmative action, but in practice they are intent on putting black professionals through the ranks, with the focus on mentorship, training and development. Yes, there are lots of soft nonsenses such as PR manager, RDP director, affirmative action executive, public affairs executive, black advancement director, community liaison manager and new markets development manager.
A black professional remarked recently that these titles are in fact new ways of saying "kaffir". Fancy words, "but still stuck in the Bantu Affairs mould", he suggested.
The professional we have just quoted is in fact a good example: he has a Masters degree, 12 years of experience, is 39 years old, and his company keeps reassuring him that they have plans in mind for him. The big salary price tags which accompany the executive jobs are still reserved for the same guys - the whites.
We are often asked where these people are. Where can one find these hard-skilled senior black professionals? It is possible, but only if one is committed, and wants to hire a real professional to do a real job.
We believe the supply still exceeds the demand, despite the contemporary mythology that black professionals are impossible to find, impossibly expensive and impossibly demanding. What is in short supply are companies that want to move beyond soft window-dressing roles, and continuously recycled black non-executive directors.
The very few SA companies that have moved beyond window-dressing and endless blah blah about affirmative action targets and mentorship, have found a way out of the cycle of frustrated black professionals, and frustrated white management. These companies have moved beyond the mythology about job hoppers and shoulder chippers. They are recognising that black professionals are a limited and valuable commodity which need to be utilised fully in the short term.
What black professionals want are real jobs, right now.
Merging these expectations can bring profit to all concerned.