Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 11 January 2013

Our systems of education and first-rung employment are broken

While the country scrambles back into schools and universities, we have to wonder if we are not guilty of perpetuating a defunct system which fails to prepare people for life and gainful employment.

The frenzied preparation of parents and students at this time of the year is based on the long-held belief that an education prepares one for life and will lead to the security and income provided by a good job. It will create a lifetime of productive employment.

We all know that education has been an article of faith throughout the world and has been the cornerstone of successful societies everywhere. A college education in America was the entry point to the leafy suburbs and good life of the American Dream. In Japan India, South Korea and other parts of Asia a good education, and especially one from an elite institution, gives privileged access to the lush rewards of a top corporate life. Minorities have always used education to elevate themselves and to make progress.

The model seemed to have worked well into the first half of the 20th century. Teaching was a respected profession and teachers were well regarded in society. Schools set the standards for behaviour and were seen as a key component of character building. No more.

Today in South African townships and in rural schools stories abound of teachers arriving drunk at school, if they arrive at all. Reports of rape and sexual abuse are a daily occurrence. Even in the affluent first world the teaching profession and education are under severe threat. Gun-toting Americans now manage schools like war zones. Teachers have lost their place in society. The quality of education seems to have deteriorated everywhere.

And it’s not only what goes on inside schools. Once they leave, students have to make peace with lowered expectations and fewer opportunities.

What we see increasingly in this present economically constrained world is that education no longer automatically buys you a ticket to a good life. What will happen to the almost 462,000 new matriculants who will be looking for jobs and a place on the first rung of life? How many of them are employable? Is it true that in some significant township schools pupils are being promoted to the next year with a 25% grade average?

The unemployed graduate is now a world-wide phenomenon. There are increasing numbers of people with impeccable Master’s degrees and PhDs living on their bare bones. Subjects have often been chosen with students surrendering to their passions but with scant regard for their ability to sustain a career. There seems to be little understanding at universities and other educational institutions of how the job market works. If there is market at all. It is not unusual for graduates to become disillusioned and bitter. The system is not working.

In South African higher education the dimensions of the problem are magnified. Eager new students are trampling each other to register and get themselves in line for a university education. Parents are breaking their necks to pay for what they believe will be a sound investment. And then comes graduation day, and the job search starts. Few anticipate the rising disappointment. How many new graduates get turned away because they “don’t have experience” and who could blame them for going mad with the frustration of this age-old chicken-egg dilemma.

Then again, speak to employers these days and they will share with you their experiences of graduates who can’t string a sentence together and who have such inflated expectations that they become disruptive. 

Forget for a moment the appalling state of our poorly resourced schools and the disgrace of the text books scandal. Think about people who have, somehow, managed to work their way through the turmoil of this dysfunctional system and end up as “educated” people who then cannot make a decent living.

Perpetuating the dream of education as a key to success is a deception if we don’t also include skills and employability into the package. The well-known system in Europe, and particularly in countries like Germany, of graduates having to complete some kind of practical internship alongside the diploma or degree makes such good sense. They become employable immediately upon graduation.

In South Africa we have recognised the value of skills and then created the Skills Education Training Authorities, the Setas which, according even to their creators inside the ANC, have with few exceptions, been wholly ineffective, a monumental waste of time and money.

How much better off we would have been if skills training were located firmly in the private sector with substantial tax incentives and other financial benefits for companies and for individual mentors who could have passed on their skills.We no longer have military conscription, but we should use the same model to conscript school-leavers for a two-year skills training programme funded by government but managed privately. Those who complete the course should not only come away with better occupationally focussed life skills but should also have passed through a proper career management “boot camp”. 

Politicians from Barak Obama to Jacob Zuma have as their number one agenda item “Job Creation”. Despite his popular re-election, Barak Obama has been the least successful president at creating jobs so far. And we know about all the Zuma-obfuscation about the numbers of jobs created. The truth is that unless politicians make big investments in infrastructure projects or similar make-work models the number of jobs in the world is not increasing and certainly not at the rate the politicians would like. The Eurozone, right now, is experiencing the highest unemployment for two decades. 

We live in a high-tech world where increasing numbers of self-employed people are selling their skills as independent contractors. “Piece work” which used to be the way we employed part-time gardeners and domestic help has scaled up and become mainstream. Freelance writers, artists and musicians have been doing it all along. Increasing numbers of people employed in big corporations or institutions are choosing to opt out and have “portfolio lives” contracting back into their previous employment as freelancers. They sell their skills, not their time at a desk. The big companies that used to suck up millions of people into primary employment now do all in their power to reduce costs and keep hard-to-fire people off the payroll. Technology has made industry and commerce much more efficient and able to function with fewer, not more people.

A very substantial rethink is required. The double whammy of inappropriate and poorly planned education followed by a shrinking job market and misguided career management will haunt us into the future if we don’t start getting it right. We have to develop a model where education linked to skills development prepares people for productivity and the ability to make a living.

With our country having had its politics rationalised and reprogrammed in the early 1990s by the original political Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), it has been said that our stumbling economy also needs an economic “Codesa”. My view is that a greater priority, and a most urgent need along the same lines, is for a major Convention for an Educated and Employed South Africa. DM

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