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Apprenticeships Are Real Eduction in South Africa
Apprenticeships are real education available to everyone
Formal education, or rather the complete lack of it, will be the greatest legacy of the current South African government. It will be nothing to be proud of and is a tragedy of the greatest proportions. I am a firm advocate that apprenticeships are real education and that vocational training is a realistic part of the solution for millions of unemployed youth in Africa.
Unfortunately, as I reflect on this article, it occurs to me that it would be dangerously easy to wade into an argument against the education crisis in South Africa and place newspapers filled with the smelly mixture of doggy-doo and responsibility at the relevant doors. But I will tread carefully.
A few weeks ago I was contacted by two young businessmen who were looking for partners in a bold venture. They were looking for access to the business world and guidance on how to approach this alien being.
My immediate reaction was amazement at the bravery of these two guys, and after spending some time with them, this was quickly followed by two additional reactions. First, the limitless vision that these enthusiastic entrepreneurs had was quite breathtaking, and perhaps a lesson is this fact alone. After several years in business, some of my bolder visions have been blunted by many voices telling me to “be realistic” – but that’s entirely fodder for another article. Suffice it to say that their business plan is bold beyond the wildest I have ever encountered. And secondly, I was saddened by the absolute naivety with which they approached business.
It reminded me of my first encounters with business as a specialized profession, as opposed to my formal training as a lawyer. There is no doubt that the business education obtained after my first three years at university was as much preparation as the following three years would be for the postgraduate degree in law. I would venture that my personal education did not take place until after university and once I had entered the “real” world to serve two years of articles on clerical work, which was a prerequisite to fully qualify and be admitted to practice as a lawyer. The purpose of these statutes is to provide vocational training in the workplace in a kind of internship.
And now back to the two optimistic guys from earlier. Their curriculum vitae indicated no higher education, but I do not consider this a limitation. In any case, readers familiar with South Africa’s secondary and tertiary education system will be aware that pass rates in educational institutions are advertised to be equaled or improved annually by brilliant idiots, in part because of the relentless lowering of standards. This lowering of standards makes formal education tragically overvalued locally until approx. a Masters tertiary level, or at least a post-graduate Honors level – amazing! Once proud and internationally recognized educational institutions can no longer offer any prestige.
The importance of this lies in the possibility of encouraging alternative approaches to upskilling potential employees or entrepreneurs.
How do you get into business?
In many “developed” nations, alternative educational pathways such as apprenticeships have been the norm for decades, and around the tenth year of school (10th grade or 8th grade) students choose to follow either the more academic path or the vocational approach. . The pros and cons of each have also been the cause of debate for decades, but the simple fact of extremely low unemployment rates in countries where vocational training is an option, compared to those in South Africa, speaks volumes for the merits of both. In my interactions with “products” of both paths, it often seems that the most important question, broadly speaking, is the preferred learning method for each individual’s strengths. By this I mean that certain individuals excel in academic environments, while others thrive in more hands-on methodology. The beauty of the alternative educational pathways seems to lie in the opportunity for those who are not academically inclined, or who do not come from an academically strong or conducive background, to further their education and skills.
A unique challenge faces South Africans from underprivileged (read: poor) backgrounds. It is often not appreciated that a poor European or Japanese or Canadian will generally still have access to electricity and be able to study their school work at night in an electrically lighted room; whereas a poor South African will have to walk 15 kilometers home from school, do household chores and try to study by candlelight in a noisy informal housing settlement (read: squatter camp) sharing a room between eight people on empty stomach because the only meal they have every day is at school.
And thus it seems that the country’s historical background has resulted in an enormous value being placed on completed academic secondary and higher education. This unfortunately raises the frightening prospect of placing great emphasis on achieving something that is beyond the reach of most young South Africans. It is beyond their reach, not because of lack of ability or desire, but because of apathy. Political will and direction are lacking to an extent that no amount of historical finger-pointing and avoidance of accountability can erase. Purported solutions are found in devising high-tech learning materials such as touchscreen tablets loaded with Internet capabilities and study guides. This is complete nonsense in the African environment and economically unsustainable. My laptop at work occasionally collapses for no identifiable reason – I can’t imagine how sensitive IT equipment is meant to survive a dusty, rustic, rural school, to say nothing of the vulnerability to crime.
For reasons beyond the scope of this article, academic qualifications are the ideal for many South Africans. Trade qualifications and apprenticeships are very much the ugly sister of the school dance.
Two young men with a huge dream asked for help, and they did not have the relevant academic paperwork, which is located so much in South Africa. Yet their story does not deserve to end there. Limitations that young people experience in their youth education should not be limitations in their lives. There should be nothing to prevent a willing student from advancing himself or herself. The apprenticeship route is not limited to excellent academic records and can be made available on a much wider scale. Quite apart from a potential investor’s ability to provide financial backing to a project, there is often the potential to add mentorship and knowledge.
Apprenticeships offer learning experience beyond academics and provide the platform to teach skills not generally taught in formal academic settings. These skills include timekeeping, inter-personal interactions in a work environment, business structure, accountability, business ethics and reporting. There is a school of thought that suggests that any person needs 10,000 hours to become an expert in a particular industry or skill. These hours are not achieved productively in class, but rather by applying the knowledge learned.
South Africa is a country riddled with corporate social debt, and the relative immaturity of its political actors often results in misguided economic policy, especially when it comes to the entrepreneur. A positive result of this, however, is the advancement of corporate social responsibility programs. As with many such policies, the idea is excellent, but its implementation under legislative pressure is flawed. Billions of rands (hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars) are spent by companies on several programs that are ostensibly to benefit poor communities and the geographic regions where these companies have made their wealth. True, many of these programs are pointless.
Corporate social responsibility
No doubt managers and leaders who are given this responsibility in these companies will slam down their cups of coffee furiously at the previous sentence, but after drying up the coffee, they had better admit it. They should take a good, creative look at their CSR (corporate social responsibility) role and assess how these billions could be used more sustainably. I’m not suggesting for a moment that charities aren’t worthy causes – but the underlying sustainability of the work being done by the charity is crucial. Many readers will be familiar with the principle that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for life.
The eager entrepreneurs expressed their frustration to me when I asked why they would even approach me. These two young men were willing to learn, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but dramatically limited in reality by their access to knowledge and experience. Regardless of their eagerness to become business people and their open acceptance of formal educational boundaries, their real problem was simply that they had no other options. Aspiring business people often wonder where to turn and how to get into a boardroom, any boardroom, just for a chance to be heard. And therein lay their answer as to why they approached me… I was one of the very few willing to listen.
Here’s my challenge to the managers of corporate social responsibility programs and spending across South Africa: Spending money is easy – create a program that your employees and managers spend time on! Spend time on young dreams and offer programs for apprenticeships.
Vocational education may be perceived as less glamorous than a university education, but it has been and continues to be the most effective way of training and development worldwide. If South Africa makes an honest and open assessment of the dilemma its many ill-educated and unemployed youth find themselves in, it should take the glory and glamor out of the social disposition.
The goal for young South Africans should be self-improvement and obtaining/creating employment. One of the most useful and tangible ways to achieve this is with education through apprenticeships.
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