Train for employment, not a qualification

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The end of the year is rapidly approaching and school-leavers have to decide where to from here. All too often, the expectations of parents and society drive learners to apply for a place at university to acquire a degree.

Sivarajan Naidoo, Director at EduPower, says it all comes down to people having to choose between developing their workplace skills and embarking on a formal education. He defines education as the transfer of knowledge from one individual to another, while skills development is the application of that knowledge to create an economic output, also known as work.

South Africa has three educational streams: there is basic education and training, which is school; there is vocational education and training (VET), such as learnerships; and higher education and training, such as university or college.

For a variety of reasons, young people are being encouraged to go to university, where they gather knowledge and learn to become academics. “There’s a few reasons for this trend,” says Naidoo.

He blames social and cultural drivers for creating a perception that a university education is somehow preferential to a vocation-based certification. He says it’s also an infrastructure challenge, as there simply aren’t enough secondary schools that prepare learners for vocations such as being a plumber, car mechanic or electrician.

Naidoo believes learners must start acquiring workplace-ready skills at basic education level. He says: “The universities aren’t training the skills that meet economic demand; we have to consider what skills are needed by the economy. What workplace role can be filled by a graduate who has a BA in philosophy, as an example? We’re seeing a growing number of graduates who have successfully completed a university education but can’t find work.”

This is partly owing to the poor state of the South African economy, but it’s also simply because there is no demand for these skills. “All too often, university graduates who have completed their degree of choice believe they should enter companies at management level. Companies, on the other hand, are hesitant to hire newly qualified graduates who have little to no workplace experience. They either want them to start at the bottom of the ladder, or they want another business to hire them first so that they can become workplace-ready.”

The resulting increase in unemployment figures stems from a combination of factors, shortcomings in the outputs of the basic education and university systems, as well as social issues. Commenting on the last point, Naidoo says: “Vocational education and training is regarded as being aimed at ‘blue-collar’ employees, whereas a university graduate is seen as a ‘white-collar’ worker.

“Society values one above the other, yet research has shown that someone who has qualified as a plumber or welder, for instance, is more likely to find employment faster than a university graduate.”

Also, these people are more likely to be entrepreneurial and start their own business, creating jobs for other people, before the age of 30, whereas the average university graduate, if he or she becomes an entrepreneur, will only do so by the age of 40.

The creation of small businesses is key to overcoming South Africa’s unemployment rate, continues Naidoo, and one way of encouraging the development of small businesses is by changing people’s perceptions of artisanal qualifications and learnerships, which have a strong practical component.

People who complete vocational courses are more work-ready when their qualification is done and are ready to hit ground running, compared to university graduates.

Naidoo says the onus is on government and particularly the Department of Education to communicate just how important it is to provide school goers with practical skills that are in demand. He favours a communication campaign aimed at improving the perception of vocational training.

“There are several things that can be done to create a pool of employable school-leavers, because not every scholar is academically gifted. For instance, the parents of children who show a good aptitude for an artisanal type of qualification can be counselled about the benefits of vocational education and training. The children themselves can be guided in a direction that suits their individual skillset.”

He also believes schools need to offer different streams that cater to the learners’ various aptitudes, such as a maths and science stream that prepares the learner for a vocational education path.

Changing people’s mindsets about vocational and artisanal streams will also have the benefit of reducing the number of students who drop out of university after realising that it simply isn’t for them.

He goes on to say: “There is also insufficient focus at school, university and VET level on the various options when it comes to the so-called ‘science’ fields of medicine, accounting and engineering, for example. Instead of registering to complete a BCom to become a chartered accountant, the learner could qualify through VET to become a bookkeeper. It will be easier for the individual to find employment at that level and opens the door for them to become a CA one day.”

Naidoo is clear: society and young people need to be guided differently. “Those people who might not achieve a university entrance can be guided by the university to do an artisanal qualification instead.

“Too many young people leave school with no idea of what they should do or what they have an aptitude for, so they abide by social conditioning and go to university. That mindset needs to change. Unemployment is a social and academic issue and, as a developing country, South Africa needs to encourage practical qualifications in skills that the economy can use.”

This article was first published on itweb.co.za