South Africa’s official youth unemployment rate increased to 63.3 percent in the first quarter of 2021 as the economic fall-out from the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc.

The latest figures presented by Stats SA paint an alarming picture for the country’s young and economically active population, up to the age of 35.

Astron Energy is one of a number of large corporates which have a critical role to play in providing a fertile environment for skills development, workplace experience, and ultimately rewarding work opportunities.

Astron Energy, headquartered in Century City and responsible for the refinery in Milnerton, a lubricants plant in Durban, and over 820 Caltex service stations in South Africa, runs an extensive graduate programme that spans 18 months.

At the beginning of 2020, Astron Energy took on 49 graduate interns, 27 in-service trainees, 8 Apprentices and 10 learners on a Chemical Operations learnership. Despite the impact of COVID-19, most of the interns managed to complete the programme – even if much of it ended up being conducted mostly in a virtual environment.

Astron Energy’s Organisational Capability, Learning and Development Manager Lindiwe Ncongwane said, “COVID-19 has certainly affected the way we conduct business, including our graduate internship programme and the experience of the interns. As an organisation, we have learnt to adapt to this changed environment and still strive to offer our interns a fulsome and enriching experience.”

Ncongwane said a key part of Astron Energy’s focus was to equip young people for the world of work in Astron Energy, the industry and the country.

“Participants in our programme are provided with exceptional insights into the corporate world to set themselves up for future success, and those with a keen interest in the petrochemical field find Astron Energy a truly engaging environment in which to learn and broaden their knowledge.”

Here, four graduates who recently completed their 18-month internship at Astron Energy, provide insights into their first experiences in the corporate world:

Nicole van Tonder (25) – Chemical Engineering graduate, North West University

My role at the refinery involved providing process support and information, including monitoring and optimising the process as far as possible. A major part of being a process engineer is also troubleshooting process shortcomings and safety.

I was attracted to Astron Energy’s internship programme because I always wanted to work in the petrochemical industry. Astron Energy is one of the top fuel suppliers in the country and I wanted to be a part of that. 

What surprised me the most in my 18 month programme was realising how valuable experience is, learning how to apply the theory that university taught me to real-life problems, processes and projects; having the unique opportunity to climb into vessels and learning the physical operation of the equipment.  

I was most proud of myself when I was chosen to stand in as process engineer for the utilities plant. Being given more responsibility and being able to add more value to the company was extremely rewarding.  

Rahul Marajh (24) – BSc, majoring in Computer Science and Information Systems, UCT

I joined Astron Energy as an intern in Innovation and this role entailed many different activities, such as research, reporting, planning, and project management.

I was quite surprised and intrigued at the fast pace at which everything moved in the business and I attended a number of workshops, including flying to Johannesburg in February last year with our team for an Innovation Strategy session.

Working during the pandemic was difficult at first as it was hard to stay focused and it was slightly demotivating as I had always looked forward to going into the office every day. Luckily for me, I had a great manager and mentor who always checked in on me and always kept me motivated. I will always be grateful to her for the role she played in my personal and professional growth during this internship. 

My advice for any incoming graduate interns would be to come in with an open mind and willingness to learn new things, and to enjoy the experience.

Sinazo Mgingqi (23) – BSc Chemical Sciences, UWC

I did my internship as a laboratory assistant at Astron Energy’s lubrication manufacturing plant in Durban. My day-to-day job involved preparation of samples, testing, recording data and analysis of results from blended finished products, imported products, as well as raw materials.

In varsity, I was studying chemistry and my love for the field developed from being involved in lab experiments, so I knew that one day I wanted to work in one of SA’s big manufacturing companies as an analyst.

I was very intrigued to be working in a real-life environment, specifically in the lube plant where the oil is blended, and where I was able to analyse it and make a decision based on the results whether to release or fail the sample product. From there, I would interact with our blending department to ensure correction on blended finished products whenever the product or sample did not meet the specifications.

The journey is still long but I am proud to have been promoted from an intern to a permanent junior Lab Technician. It is a milestone for me and for my family. 

Tshephang Mabogwane (22), Bcom degree in Economics and Econometrics, University of Johannesburg

My enthusiasm for economics is driven by a passion for working with numbers in the analytical field. Throughout my graduate programme in the Business Development Unit I learnt various techniques about developing a new business project and how the economic background drives the success of each project. 

I helped prepare market reports to guide company performance in relation to competitors in the oil industry on a national and provincial level. I also performed economic analysis to determine how other sectors correlate with the oil industry and where most parts of oil-based commodities are being utilised. Last year, my reports were for the most part centered on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and forecasting the recuperation phase.

I had always felt that economics is considered crucial only in the financial and banking sectors but after research and my introduction to the Astron Energy graduate programme, I understood that my field really fits into many specialty units in the organization, and how the study of economics assumes a significant role in the oil industry.

QUOTE: “You cannot climb the ladder of success with your hands in your pockets” – Sinazo Mgingqi