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Lately I have been thinking quite a lot about the employment challenge faced by our young people. It’s true that economic circumstances are difficult and opportunities scarce, but I do think that we could do a lot more to manage some of the unrealistic expectations they have and guide them towards opportunities that do exist.
A misconception that is prevalent 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 your chosen field.
A further misconception is that you are entitled to a job in your chosen field simply by virtue of having obtained a qualification.
A little while ago I had an interesting conversation with some students. They came to see me, to ask what the Chamber was doing to ensure there are jobs waiting for them when they graduate.
I responded by asking them whether, knowing that nobody would ever buy pink fluffy widgets, they would consider opening a shop that sold such products? They responded immediately, saying that of course they wouldn’t.
I then explained to them that once they had obtained their qualifications, they would, in effect, be trying to sell their acquired skills. I asked whether they had established whether there was a demand for the skills they are acquiring before they had set out to acquire them. They admitted that this had never occurred to them, and I have to wonder why this sort of essential career guidance is not taking place in schools.
This led us to a discussion about where the current employment opportunities are. I explained that there is great demand for artisans, and that, because of this, securing the services of a good plumber or electrician is a difficult and expensive undertaking. I asked whether they were aware of the market needs. They 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 obtaining 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?
The question we should be asking is, how do we manage the perceptions about learning a trade? Shouldn’t we be teaching children to admire the skills of tradesmen?
There is a real need to boost the numbers in the further education and training 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, but the opposite is occurring.
One can’t help but think that there must be something wrong with the education system’s matric ogive curve, if so many young people are qualifying to study at university.
The other problem with focusing on pushing the numbers through universities, is that there is insufficient focus on building our country’s 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 does SA expect to compete internationally if we don’t have the know-how?
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.
* Melanie Veness is the CEO of the Pietermaritzburg Chamber of Business.