We need to inform the youth

2013-11-19 00:00

LATELY, I have been thinking quite a lot about the employment challenge faced by our young people, perhaps because my own son is writing matric at the moment and will be studying further next year.

It is true that economic circumstances are difficult and opportunities scarce, but we could do a lot more to manage some of the unrealistic expectations that young people have and to guide them towards opportunities that do exist.

A common misconception is that obtaining a qualification means that you have all the necessary skills to go straight into a management position. Young people don’t seem to understand that obtaining a qualification is only the first step towards achieving competency in their chosen field.

A further misconception is that you are entitled to a job in your chosen field simply by virtue of the fact that you have obtained a qualification in that field.

A little while ago, I had an interesting conversation with some young people from the local university. They made an appointment to see me, arrived smartly dressed and on time, introduced themselves confidently, and sat down to have a serious conversation. Needless to say, I was suitably impressed with them. Which is why I was quite surprised when, having explained that they will qualify as attorneys shortly, they went on to ask me what the Chamber was doing to ensure that there are jobs waiting for them when they qualify from university.

I was initially taken aback, but then I responded by posing a scenario. I asked them whether, knowing that nobody would ever buy pink fluffy widgets, they would consider opening a shop that sold such widgets? They responded saying that, of course, they wouldn’t. I then explained to them that once they have obtained their qualifications, they will, in effect, be attempting to sell their acquired skills. I asked whether they had established whether there was a demand for their new skills before they had set out to acquire them. They admitted that this had never occurred to them. I have to wonder why this sort of career guidance is not taking place in schools.

This led us to a discussion about where the current employment opportunities are. I spoke to them about opportunities in information technology and logistics. I also explained that there is great demand for artisans, and that, because of this, securing the services of a good plumber or electrician is both a difficult and expensive undertaking. I asked whether they were aware of the market needs. They both shook their heads. They explained to me that they had decided to obtain degrees because there is a stigma attached to studying anywhere other than at university, and that learning a trade is only a consideration if you do not qualify to attend university.

How sad. I understand the aspirational value attached to attending university, but what is the point of obtaining a degree if there is no job for you at the end? The questions that we should be asking are: how do we manage the perceptions about learning a trade, and shouldn’t we be teaching children to admire the skills of tradespeople? Perhaps perceptions will change when the artisans show that they are capable of earning far more than their professional counterparts.

There is a real need to boost the numbers in the FET colleges and to decrease the number of students at universities. There should be at least three times as many people studying in technical colleges as there are in universities, and the opposite is actually occurring.

One can’t help but think there must be something wrong with the education system’s matric ogive curve, if so many young people are qualifying to study at university, and what a disservice we are doing them. The other problem, of course, is that there is insufficient focus on building our educational competitiveness and technological capability. In conversation the other evening, we were discussing the beleaguered clothing and textile sector. I was told that there is not a single person in the sector who has a PhD in the field. How on Earth do we expect to compete internationally if we don’t have the know-how to compete?

It is essential that we start having this kind of conversation, and that we start having it in our schools. Our youth have the right to know the facts, and the country needs them to.

• Melanie Veness is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Commerce.

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