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Of jobs and education

07 February 2013, 09:02

Education clearly is one of, if not the single biggest challenges we face in this country. The rising costs of inflation and the resultant impact on the poor is frightening, my own dwindling disposable income highlights to be how tough it must be on them. The Eskom crises and subsequent energy mega-inflation is of course a big driver of said inflation ... but what of the next crises: clean water – again further exacerbated by acid mine drainage and poor environmental performance in the industrial and mining fields. We have seen massive strides in HIV/AIDS since the dark days of Thabo Mbeki, but this too is still a concerning factor. Then there is the very topical issue of employment, and specifically youth employment, an issue which bubbles beneath the surface of the fragile unity of our young democracy.

Which if course brings me right back to: education. Education has just been deemed an “essential service” by the ANC, hopefully signalling the ruling party’s desire to tackle strikes and poor performance in the sector. SADTU has for too long, in their capacity as a stakeholder in the ruling party, ruled with an iron fist and allowed the teachers of this nation to get away with poor performance, truancy and even sexual predation. As frightening as the later of those issues is, and the mind boggles that those so trusted to guide and form our future leaders could exact such heinous abuse, it is the former two that has resulted in our having, almost 20 years since democracy, a largely broken education system. Positive steps have been discussed such as the return of in-class teacher evaluations (again, it boggles to think that this has not been done for some time, imagine getting free reign in your job without repercussions), but discussions must lead to action. The Minister is quick to point out that the pass rate has been increasing consistently for some time. But this obfuscation masks a bigger problem, the required pass mark is moving down and the quality of education as is South Africa’s ranking in various education ratings. The last point is key, as students are moving away from things such as maths, science (and as a consequence are shortages important skills in engineers and accountants) into subjects less likely to provide higher guarantees of employment.

But wait, there’s more. I had a very enlightening (is there a word for enlightening, but in a negative sense) interaction with someone on twitter. The gentleman in question was passionately discussion the issue of structural employment in SA, or the myth of it in his opinion. I am no expert but did question some of his statements. He was adamant that Business’ was undertaking an elaborate ploy to deny black intellectuals and workers due simply to their colour. He suggests experienced blacks are turned away because they have no flair and because they are, well, black. He even suggests he knows a black chap with a PhD in Engineering and post grad in commerce who could not find work. I highlighted to him that I find this exceptional and gave some anecdotal evidence (mine in a professional capacity, and those of some friends) of “token blacks”, people employed simply due to the colour of their skin, or their political connections. People employed and wheeled out in front of public sector (and private sector) clients for status updates on projects, people who did very little of the actual work and rather facilitated relationships and further work. I wandered how someone so qualified and likely skilled, could not find work when these people could?

Now let me be clear, these are the exception and not the rule, a sad exception given their salaries and their value-add to the respective business outside of a couple of (largely government) contracts. I must say that, working in the engineering and construction sector in large projects, most of the people of I worked with (black, white, whatever) were very bright, very motivated and great at what they did. I recently completed an MBA and engaged with some brilliant, hard working people, movers and shakers who couldn’t be more different from this view of a token candidate.

Back to the gentleman in question. I suggest to him that if he would put this chap in contact with me, I was pretty sure I could assist him in acquiring gainful employment at a top tear firm. Again, in the field and working in professional services I was pretty sure this chap was employable. Perhaps this was condescending of me, I am not sure, but he declined out of respect for the chap (his word, not mind). Did I call him on his bluff, or did I was this genuine concern for his unemployed friend’s self respect. Now, in my experience at work and at the various clients I have worked for, I have noted many Zimbabweans, Kenyans and Botswanans working in South Africa. These folks are snapped up by professional service firms readily. The reasons? In my experience, and I stand to be corrected, they were exceptionally hard working, professional, they had a good education, and were willing to travel.

So yes, we are back to the education. So that brings me to the crux of this. Are these firms employing these people because their education and work ethic are better than those of our fellow South Africans? Are they employed rather because the “white monopoly capital” / Business doesn’t like black South Africans and wants to keep them down? In that case then Business is not racist, since these foreigners are generally black folks, so what is big problem then? Perhaps they are not patriotic? You can accuse Business of a lot of things quite fairly; however I fail to see any company not hiring a South African who is highly educated and well skilled because he is black. Picture the scene: a large South African conglomerate has a board meeting. The CEO states they have some attractive growth and investment opportunities both in SA and in Africa, however he has decided that they should forgo the additional profits and growth for shareholders since it would require hiring skilled people of colour. Can you imagine that? I don’t think so.

So, ok, here we are, I don’t have the answers, hell I am barely asking the right questions. However, I must ask this, how many of you have experience things like the MEng / Comms gentleman? I am sure there are some examples and I’d love to be proved wrong. To me and from what I have learned during my MBA and in my career, our education is in severe crisis. A crisis we must acknowledge and tackle immediately. Blaming business is all fine and well, suggesting business has an agenda is all fair and good. But again, I’d suggest Business’ agenda is to make loads of money, provide them with skilled people who can delivery work and grow their markets, it’s as simple as that. The ruling party has done a lot of good things since coming into power, but this “essential service” they speak of is essentially a disaster, and if we don’t recover it soon (and believe me, it will take time), then we are looking at two consecutive lost generations ... the consequences of which could tear the country apart at its seems.

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