Opinionista Johann Redelinghuys 9 June 2014

Marshalling our post-executive network

Senior executives retiring these days are often still fit and healthy. Many are well enough to run the Comrades, and participate in events like the Two Oceans, and yet they are put out to work-pasture. Retirement at a designated age is mandatory in most organisations. Actuaries say that with improved medical care and sound nutrition barring anything untoward, many of those retiring now will live for another thirty years or more. The prospect of an idle retirement, especially for those who have had successful executive lives, is not attractive, and most would wish to use their skills in some productive capacity.

The concept of retirement, which is now enforced everywhere, was conceived when life-spans were much shorter and the life of a retiree ended conveniently a few years after leaving employment. Instead of retirement being the approach to a gracious decline and end to everything, it is now increasingly becoming a whole next stage of life that has to be planned carefully.

There is a growing network of retired ‘post executive’ business leaders who can make a difference in our skill starved economy. They can be deployed into coaching the expanding numbers of unemployed young people who can’t find gainful employment because they lack the most rudimentary knowledge of business and how productive adult life works.

Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education and Training, recently published the “National Scarce Skills List: Top 100 Occupations in Demand”. In it he indicates that managers of all descriptions are in short supply countrywide. The list includes “chief executives, general managers in most fields including construction, distribution and production, information technology, hospitality, retail and services. Professionals are required in dozens of fields from accounting to engineering, actuarial science, medicine, school teachers, business system analysts and a raft of others.

In the trades there are critical shortages of plumbers, carpenters, panel beaters, electricians, and technicians in every field from medical science to agriculture.

In a country with broken systems of formal education and skills training, we are unlikely to address these economy-choking black holes in the short term, or even the medium-term, unless we come up with a radical solution. Added to our unmet needs is a restrictive immigration policy which does not allow high numbers of well qualified foreigners to come in and alleviate matters.

Many people who have retired or have taken early retirement have been seconded back into positions where they are making a difference. But there is a need for a more formal and large scale organisational initiative to mobilise our post-executive network.

According to the 2014 “World Economic Forum’s Global Risks” report, South Africa’s youth unemployment is the third-highest in the world at around 36.1%. Government, which we know has only a very slender understanding of business, keeps pounding the notion that entrepreneurship is the way to build a more sustainable level of employment. It is often mentioned that in countries like Italy, most of the economy is driven by small enterprises built and run by entrepreneurs. Picking up on this, there are now various post-graduate programmes in entrepreneurship and many initiatives from the private sector that are training young people to become entrepreneurs.

The sad truth is that entrepreneurship cannot be taught. It is the result of a particular risk tolerance combined with individualistic personality and the business skill to understand a market and its needs that comes together in a “start-up mentality”. How can someone with no business skill and almost no knowledge of how the economy works embark on an entrepreneurial life? There is no foundational experience to use as a platform for it.

A plan has been suggested. The post executive network is a well-qualified source of business coaching and mentorship. Many of the people now out to grass have deep business and professional skills and the desire at their later stage of life to “give something back”.

While they can continue their working lives by having a secondment or contract appointment back into their field of skill, they can just as easily be harnessed into a coaching role building business skill and understanding for a group of younger people. Learning some of the basics of business and how to address   market opportunities as individuals would be of greater value to many of them than trying to coax them into to starting ill-conceived entrepreneurial ventures.

The syllabus for such a coaching programme could be based on the practical case history method which shows students how to respond to real-life situations and business challenges.

Groups of 10 to 12 unemployed 15- to 24 year-olds can be assigned to a volunteering post-executive coach to meet with them as a group once a month or at any other arranged interval, at a coffee shop or in a park or wherever. They can also set up appointments for individual sessions. Such small groups can develop team names and their own branding creating a culture of enterprise. They can also meet in a bigger convention-like gathering from time to time to celebrate their victories and bond into the coaching culture.

The SETAs were intended to build a facility for skills development and to train people into productivity. But like so much else that is established and run by the government, they have not achieved their intended purpose and have, with singular exceptions, been a costly failure. It is time for a private sector to do it.

Previously successful leaders in the post-executive network of coaches don’t need to build their careers anymore and mostly do not need the money. The altruistic nature of such a network would change the chemistry and would have a completely different set of goals.

Setting aside their enforced compulsory retirement and taking a more accommodating approach to transformation, a responsive government could bring back willing members of the post-executive networks to take on short-term contracts in local and national government. This would not only alleviate the skills shortage, it would create more employment. A professional person in any one of the fields like accountancy, engineering medical practice, teaching and the rest automatically creates jobs and employment opportunities for two or three unqualified people.

Could we encourage Dr Blade Nzimande, a psychologist after all, to engage with the private sector and pick up on some of these opportunities? Could we ask the honourable Minister of Education and Training to use his influence to expand the skills base of this country by engaging purposefully with the country’s post-executive network? DM

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