It takes a village to find a career

2011-01-17 00:00

THE 2010 matric results have met with mixed reactions: among the joy there have also been some tantalising and controversial questions. However, after all the political points have been scored the question remains: where to now for the class of 2010? Will they be heading for post-school options that are in keeping with their interests and abilities or will their talents be lost to the South African economy?

If the recent bottlenecks at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) are anything to go by, many members of the class of 2010 find themselves completely unprepared for managing the next chapter of their lives. Their only option appears to be “have university entrance, must go to UJ”. Meanwhile only the most uninformed among us would argue that the university route is inherently better than, for example, the Further Education and Training option.

I wonder how many in the class of 2010 were ever given the opportunity to reflect on what makes them feel alive? Did they leave school with a sense that they were, for example, drawn towards careers in caring where they could work in health care or our NGO sector? Perhaps their thing is to make money and become entrepreneurs? Maybe what really­ gets them going is the satisfaction of creating order of chaos, like good accountants and PAs do?

Whatever the call, the identification of these individual stirrings is what should, ultimately, give career direction. Instead my sense, too often, is of a frantic stampede, with everyone headed for the only exit they know of, the university ... I sympathise with the historical reasons for this uniquely South African phenomenon, but quite frankly, it needs to end.

Which brings me to the critical role of career­ guidance teachers. For several years it has been the policy of the Department of Education (DoE) that every high school child have one to two hours of life orientation (LO) a week, part of which involves career guidance.

But if this has been the policy for the past few years why is there so much career misguidance among our school leavers? Why are our universities oversubscribed with young people who are clearly not wired for that form of learning and why do more than half of students drop out of higher education before completing their degrees? Why have so few of our young people even heard of alternative training routes, such as, learnerships and apprenticeships and why do so many of them look at you askance when you dare mention that they volunteer somewhere after leaving school?

My guess is that these alternative training options are not discussed enough (if at all) during school-based career guidance programmes.

The term school-based career guidance is itself instructive. While the process needs, of course, to be anchored and based in the school curriculum, it could never be confined to school alone. Career guidance is simply far too complex a process for one party, especially one as under-resourced as the DoE. No, if ever there were an opportunity for the wider village to join hands with the DoE then it’s in the career guidance of our school children.

I have always suspected that too many young people leave school ill-prepared for the world of work. Consider the following real­-life example.

Early one winter’s morning I found myself sitting opposite a bright, recently matriculated young woman from a nearby township school. Her exasperated gogo had referred her for career guidance. A quick perusal of her matric marks confirmed that she had done well in a subject called travel and tourism and in life orientation. Upon inquiry I discovered that she was interested in working in the travel industry, but that she had never been to a travel agency in her life. To help her feel a bit more involved in the process I handed her the Telkom telephone directory and scribbled down the name of a travel company that I knew would be pupil-friendly.

“Get their number from the directory and use this phone to make an appointment with one of the agents. I’ll drop you off there later this morning,” I suggested.

After about 10 minutes I returned to the room to find the phone book unopened on the lap of the young woman. She looked terribly embarrassed and finally blurted out that she did not know how to use this book to find the number. She also assured me that no one would take a young girl like her seriously on the phone and that the whole exercise was a waste of time.

It is helpful to think of school-based career guidance as if it were a three-legged stool: schools, parents and the wider community. Schools provide the basic career information in the form of lessons, print and audio visual material. The role of the wider community is to provide the role models, experts and post-school training facilities. And the role of parents? Well, the parents get involved as much as they can and will ultimately have to fund the process. In contrast with the above, my experience of learning, in general, and career education, in particular, has sadly been more of a one-legged stool: here the wider community and parent legs have little or no part. How else do you get a bright young matriculant who has never seen a Telkom phone directory­ and who has no skills or confidence with which to engage with the world of work?

Turning to the class of 2010: the bad news is that there is very little that anyone can do about the career direction of this group of school leavers. They will have to bumble along and find their own way. The good news, however, is that much can be done to help the class of 2011.

But where to start? If we are to approach this task strategically, and we must, then the focus of our attention needs to be the capacitating of the LO teacher. This teacher is the main co-ordinator of career information in his or her school. The more this person is equipped to do their job the more the other legs can be involved and the stool could, ideally­, support the child.

What follows are three practical suggestions for local municipalities, businesses, individuals and service organisations to consider if they wish to support school-based career guidance:

Consider taking an hour this year to open your business doors to a group of LO teachers

During 2010 two local businesses, Kaymac Structural Foam and MacDonalds (hamburgers) gave a group of 12 LO teachers a tour of their premises and answered questions about their respective industries.

For the teachers it was an extraordinarily helpful exercise. All of them reported that the visits had been highly informative and that, as a result, they felt better equipped to guide their pupils.

If you are feeling adventurous you might even consider leaving your office for an hour and visiting a local school to share your career journey with the class

The good news is that you don’t even have to prepare. Instead a local organisation has developed a non-threatening interview format. They have trained a group of township LO teachers to manage your interview in front of the class: “How did you get your job? Where did you train? What are the pros and cons of doing your kind of work?” These are some of the questions that the LO teacher and braver class members will ask. Your responses will provide vocabulary and stir ideas­ that will help them, eventually, to identify what makes them come alive.

Finally, get involved in an innovative training initiative

There are few resources available to the average LO teacher. Very few township schools have access to the Internet or to audio-visual material about careers. Bear in mind that this affects 80% of South African children. As a result, a Pietermaritzburg-based educational development organisation is currently involved in an exciting project with far-reaching benefits. They are developing a database of local businesses that are all willing to be partners in the development of an audio-visual series aimed at widening young people’s horizons about the world of work. This is something every marketing­ and BEE contact person should consider.


The old adage that it takes a village to raise a child has never been more true. When we look back on 2011, will we say that this was the year in which the wider village of Pietermaritzburg­ played its part to ensure than the class of 2011 left school better prepared than the class of 2010?

• Colin McKay is a Pietermaritzburg-based educational psychologist. He is the founder of an organisation called SchoolTrade which is involved in career development in local township and rural schools. The contact details of SchoolTrade are phone 083 236 5662, website: www.schooltrade. e-mail:

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