Young, jobless and desperate – Will FET colleges fix our future?

2012-06-23 17:06

It’s just after midday in Soweto and two engineering students are talking about hopes, dreams and their uncertain future.

While they appear to be no different to thousands of other South Africans studying at tertiary institutions, these further education and training (FET) college students face a tougher battle for jobs than their peers.

“You come to an FET college looking for a better future for you and for your family but . . . there’s quite a lot of sadness and disappointment,” says 21-year-old Relebohile Nephawe.

His fellow student Zuko Venge explains: “If we don’t have practical experience, it’s the same as having nothing.”

The word “experience” dominates the conversation and, with good reason, they cannot qualify without it.
And the experts agree.

Anthony Gewer of the NGO, JET Education Services, says: “You can get all of the theoretical training in college but if you don’t get into the workplace it doesn’t mean anything.”

According to independent education analyst Dr Andre Kraak, FET colleges are no longer “Cinderella institutions, partnerships with industry have been a mess”.

He said that these colleges were once closely partnered with industry under the old apprenticeship system, which required that students conduct their practical training in the workplace.

But when this system was phased out after apartheid, these relationships declined and have been difficult to replace.

A recent study by the Human Sciences Research Council reveals that only 18 of South Africa’s 50 public FET colleges keep data on where their graduates end up.

“This lack of key data renders claims about the employability of FET college graduates highly unreliable,” the report notes.

Similarly, a Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET) report released earlier this year notes that “FET colleges have a poor image with employers and therefore only a minority of their graduates, aggregated across all fields, find employment”.

Zuko Venge’s story shows exactly why FET graduates face an uphill battle in finding work.

From the small Eastern Cape town of Willowvale, Venge left his family after matric in 2009 and moved in with an uncle so that he could study at South West Gauteng FET College.

“That was at the time when they were taking out the N-courses, so I enrolled for NC(V),” he says, referring to a 2007 decision taken by the education department to phase out the outdated National Certificate (N-programmes) and replace them with a new, comprehensive curriculum called the National Certificate (Vocational) or NC(V) programme.

According to Kraak, this decision was a “good example of policy failure”, which did “a lot of damage to the colleges”.

The NC(V) was originally designed as an alternative for the more academic grades 10, 11 and 12 – the idea being that these students could then leave colleges for vocational employment at the age of 18.

Gewer says: “As it worked out, there was more demand for colleges at a post-matric level and the curriculum was far too challenging for (Grade 9 graduates).”

In Venge’s class, almost all of the Grade 9 graduates who started the course with him dropped out because they “couldn’t stand the pressure”.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the NC(V) qualification does not generally lead to a job.

“After the NC(V) programme we didn’t find any work around, so the only option we had was to do the N-programme. Most companies say they don’t know the NC(V),” says Venge.

When Venge finishes the post-school N-programme this year, he will be required to complete 18 months’ work experience to receive his qualification.

This is what worries him.

“You struggle to get a company to do an internship at. At the end of the day I have to make it work,” he says.

“My parents, to be honest, are struggling and I want to support them, as well as my little brother and sisters to get the education they want.

“I want to find a job, I want to work hard.”

It’s difficult to say how many desperate FET graduates like Venge will enter the job market next year.

The CHET report notes that the sector is “plagued by a lack of reliable data”.

During his budget speech this year, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said there were 437 060 total enrolments in the 50 FET colleges across South Africa.

With Nzimande having set an enrolment target of one million by 2014, government has launched some urgent interventions into a sector dogged by a reputation of inefficiency, maladministration and corruption.

In May, President Jacob Zuma signed into law the FET Colleges Amendment Act,which effectively moves the administration of the colleges from provinces to the national department of higher education.

The department’s director-general, Gwebs Qonde, says: “What has been undercutting (the FET colleges) is that government makes money available, but there is no value for that money”.

Qonde says the higher education department has concluded an agreement with the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants.

This agreement entails retired accountants being seconded to FETs as chief financial officers for a period of two years.

“Their main function would be to stabilise the day-to-day functions and assess the processes, needs and skills in those colleges,” says Qonde.

Furthermore, according to Qonde, the department has created a “chief directorate of work-integrated learning so that each sector education and training authority (Seta) would know how many FET students were graduating, and plan placement”.

But Gewer says the Setas were originally designed for “upskilling of the existing workforce, with the result that very few unemployed youth get taken up”.

In 2010, Setas received a management shake-up and were also moved from the labour department to the higher education department to address this problem.

According to last year’s national skills accord between industry and government, Setas will also have to facilitate the placement of 12 000 FET and 5 000 university students in positions in industry.

Whether these interventions will have any positive effect on Venge’s life remains to be seen.

Gewer believes that turning our colleges around “is going to take time, you can’t underestimate the complexity of that process . . . but in the meantime you’ve got to keep the system going”.

He echoes Venge’s words, saying: “It’s not any more or less depressing than the schooling system but we have to make it work. We don’t have a choice.”

» Are you young and struggling to navigate the job market? Are you about to finish high school and not sure what route to follow to eventually land your dream job? Send your career-related questions to for our panel of experts to tackle.

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