Skip to Main Navigation
FEATURE STORY June 12, 2018

Finding Jobs in South Africa: Two Actionable Ideas that Work


Photo: World Bank


  • The World Bank, in collaboration with external researchers, launched several experiments in South Africa to better understand what interventions work to support youth job seekers to find employment
  • The findings revealed that reference letters and an action-planning tool are effective strategies to improve employment outcomes.
  • These low-cost solutions can be scaled up within existing employment services as a complement to ongoing services for the unemployed

JOHANNESBURG, June 11, 2018 – Recent studies show that better job search planning and including a reference letter from former employers, significantly increases responses from potential employers in South Africa.  

The World Bank’s Africa Gender Innovation Lab and Jobs Group, in collaboration with researchers from Middlebury College, Stellenbosch University and University of Cape Town, conducted several experiments investigating the roles of skills certificates, referral letters, and providing better information about workers in the labor market.  

One experiment involved the design and testing of an action-planning tool to promote greater job search intensity. The tool layered on top of a 90-minute career-counseling workshop offered by the government of South Africa helped unemployed youth follow through on their job search intentions and adopt a more efficient and effective search strategy. Improved search strategy led to job seekers receiving 24% more responses from employers and 30% more job offers. Five to 12 weeks after the workshop and action planning, these job seekers were 26% more likely to be employed.

A second experiment, tested the impact of reference letters from former employers. Including a reference letter in a job application increased the likelihood of getting a response to an application (by 60%). Interestingly, reference letters may be even more important for women job seekers. Women with better reference letters were more likely to receive responses from employers and interview requests (the same was not true for men). Women who received reference letter templates were approximately 50% more likely to be employed with employment rates doubled for those who used the letters.