To be all they can

2012-06-18 00:00

SKILLS development is surely one of the most complex challenges faced by the South African economy. How is it that after so many years and interventions, our efforts have yielded so little, in such a key area, compared with other developing countries?

Our organisation is particularly interested in a very specific aspect of the skills development ladder; namely, career guidance at school level, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Firstly, there is the familiar national imperative: from Blade Nzimande’s Skills Development Strategy to Trevor Manual’s National Development Plan, and, more recently, President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, the call is the same: good career guidance is key to employment and to addressing the critical skills shortages in South Africa.

The second reason career guidance is important is for its personal imperative. Young people cannot be reduced to mechanical components of some grand economic machine. Ideally, the work that we all do also has to satisfy each person’s unique set of interests and values. Or, as Howard Thurman once famously said: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Rather ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world really needs is people who are alive.”

Finally, there is the inspirational imperative. There are many anecdotal examples of how a career dream was able to inspire a young person to reach beyond his or her personal circumstances and achieve something extraordinary.

Good career guidance is a challenge, even in so-called well-resourced schools. Some of the necessary requirements for good career guidance are pupil motivation, relevant role models, accessible career information, parental support, up-to-date information about tertiary training requirements, high-level career counselling skills, opportunities for work exposure and, probably, a whole lot more.

Now, consider career guidance in our average underresourced school in South Africa. Incidentally, this environment, with all its inadequacies, serves nearly 90% of pupils in South Africa. It is likely that not one of the above requirements for good career guidance have been in place, up to now, at that school.

Yes, career guidance is part of the official school curriculum, but, in reality, it only forms one eighth of a single learning subject, called life orientation (LO). Yes, each high school is required to have an LO teacher, but, in reality, that teacher is unlikely to have been properly trained to deliver career guidance. As for career libraries and opportunities for work exposure, don’t even ask.

In January 2011, I wrote an article in this paper describing the sorry state of school-based career guidance. I am pleased to report that the outlook, today, is slightly more optimistic. If the current trajectory continues then Trevor Manual, Blade Nzimande, Jacob Zuma and you and I have reason to expect an improved career guidance service in schools in KwaZulu-Natal.

In the past 18 months there have been two hopeful developments. As one would expect, the first involves capacity-building in schools.

• The Department of Education (DoE), through its policy of inclusive education (IE), has invested funds in the proper training, resourcing and monitoring of LO in the province. So far, this year nearly 300 LO teachers in four of the 10 educational districts (including uMgungundlovu) have received good basic training and a useful DVD resource for use in career guidance lessons.

• The second item of good news applies not to schools, but to the wider community. Career guidance without the involvement of the wider community is about as effective as learning to swim without ever getting into water.

Consider the example of local electronics manufacturing company, Nortech International, based in Willowton. In May of this year, a repairs supervisor from Nortech International addressed nearly 60 pupils from Zibukezulu Technical High, in Imbali, during a regular LO lesson.

To place the presentation in context: according to the Engineering Council of South Africa (ECSA), South Africa only has one engineer for every 3 000 citizens. By comparison, developing countries like Brazil and Malaysia have one engineer for every 227 and 543 citizens, respectively.

It is well known that the scarcity of skills in engineering in South Africa has very serious consequences. It limits economic development, holds back technological research and undermines service delivery to citizens.

The Nortech presentation was the first phase of a carefully designed two-part intervention at Zibukezulu. During the interview, pupils asked the repairs supervisor about this person’s job description and particular career path since leaving school. Oh yes, and there was one more question. How did a 20-something Zulu-speaking woman from a rural school manage to become a highly trained repairs supervisor in the electronics industry?

In August this year 10 pupils from the audience will be selected to attend a work exposure at Nortech. They will be selected by their LO teacher on the basis of their CVs, interview and motivation. This is integrated career education as it should be.

Nortech International has joined the Pietermaritzburg chapter of the Izandla Careers Club (ICC). Thanks to the ICC, companies in our region are able to make a significant difference in career education in local underprivileged schools. At the same time they will earn enterprise development and socioeconomic development points on their BEE Scorecards. For more about the ICC go to la.htm

If the Department of Education and the wider community continue in this way, then there is hope for skills development and employment for young people in South Africa.

Colin McKay is an educational psychologist and the director of a local educational development organisation called SchoolTrade. He can be contacted at colin.schooltrade@ and

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