Apprenticeships are Real Education

Apprenticeships are Real Education Accessible to All

Formal education, or rather the complete lack of it, will become the current South African government’s greatest legacy. It will be nothing to be proud of and is a tragedy of the greatest proportions. I am a firm proponent that apprenticeships are real education and that  vocational training is a realistic part of the solution for millions of unemployed youth in Africa.

Unfortunately, as I ponder this article, it occurs to me that it would be dangerously easy to move into a diatribe against the educational crisis in South Africa and place newspapers filled with the odorous mixture of doggy-doo and responsibility at the relevant doors. But I will tread cautiously.

A few weeks ago, I was approached by two young, businessmen looking for partners in a bold venture. They were looking for access to the business world and guidance in how to approach this foreign creature.

My immediate reaction was astonishment at the bravery of these two chaps and, after spending some time with them, this was quickly followed by two further reactions. Firstly, the unlimited vision that these enthusiastic entrepreneurs had, was quite breath-taking and perhaps a lesson lies is this fact alone. After years in business, some of my bolder visions have been jaded by many voices telling me to “be realistic” – but this is food for another article entirely. Suffice it to say that their business plan is bold beyond the wildest I have ever encountered. And secondly, I was saddened by the absolute naiveté with which they approached business.

It reminded me of my initial encounters with business as a specialised profession, as opposed to my formal training as an attorney. There is no doubt that the business degree, achieved after my first three years at university, was just as much preparation as the following three years would be for the postgraduate degree in law. I would venture that my personal education took place only after university and once I had entered the “real” world to serve out two years Articles of Clerkship, which was a prerequisite to fully qualifying and being admitted to practise as a lawyer. The intention of these Articles of Clerkship is to provide on-the-job, vocational training in an internship of sorts and they demonstrate that apprenticeships are real education.

And now, back to the two optimistic guys from earlier. Their curriculum vitae indicated no tertiary education, but I do not believe this to be a limitation. In any event, readers familiar with South Africa’s secondary and tertiary educational system will be aware that pass rates in learning institutions are announced to be equalled or improved upon yearly by beaming idiots, to some degree because of the relentless lowering of standards. That lowering of standards renders formal education tragically over-rated locally until approximately a Masters tertiary level, or at the very least, a post-graduate Honours level – astonishing! Once-proud and internationally recognised educational institutions can no longer offer any prestige.

The significance of this lies in the opportunity to encourage alternative approaches to skilling up potential employees or entrepreneurs.

How to Get Into the Business World?

In many “developed” nations, alternate paths of education such as apprenticeship have been the norm for decades and, at around the tenth school year (grade 10 or standard 8), pupils elect to follow either the more academic route or the vocational training approach. The benefits and drawbacks of each have also been the cause of debate for decades, but the simple fact of extremely low unemployment rates in countries where vocational training is an option, relative to those in South Africa, speak volumes as to the benefits of both. In my interactions with “products” of both paths, it often seems that the most important issue at play in broad terms is the preferred method of learning for each individual’s strengths. By this I mean that certain individuals excel in academic environments, while others thrive on more practical methodology. The beauty of the alternate educational pathways seems to lie in the opportunity, for those who are not academically inclined or who do not come from an academically strong or conducive background, to further their education and skills.

A unique challenge faces South Africans from under-privileged (read: poor) backgrounds. It is often not appreciated that a poor European or Japanese or Canadian will generally still have access to electricity and be able to study their school work at night in an electrically lit room; whereas a poor South African will have to walk 15 kilometres home from school, perform household chores, and try to study by candlelight in a noisy, informal living settlement (read: squatter camp), sharing one room between eight people, on an empty stomach because the only meal they have each day is at school.

And thus, it seems that the historical background of the country has resulted in enormous value being placed on completed academic secondary and tertiary education. This, unfortunately, raises the daunting prospect that great weight is placed on achieving something that is beyond the reach of most young South Africans. It is beyond their reach, not for lack of ability or desire, but due to apathy. Political will and direction is lacking to an extent that no amount of historical finger-pointing and avoidance of accountability can gloss over. Alleged solutions are found in conceiving high tech learning materials like touch-screen tablets loaded with internet capability and study guides. This is utter nonsense in the African environment and economically not viable. My laptop at work collapses every so often for no identifiable reason – I cannot imagine how sensitive IT equipment is meant to survive a dusty, rustic, rural school, to say nothing of the vulnerability to crime.

For reasons falling beyond the scope of this article, academics qualifications are the ideal of many South Africans. Trade qualifications and apprenticeships are very much the ugly sister at the school dance.

Two young men with a huge dream asked for help and they did not have the relevant academic paperwork upon which so much stead is placed in South Africa. Yet, their story does not deserve to end there. Limitations experienced by young people in their secondary education should not be limitations in their life. There should be nothing to stop a willing learner from furthering herself or himself. The route of apprenticeships is not limited to sterling academic records and can be made available on a far broader scale. Quite apart from the ability of a potential investor to put financial backing into a project, there is often the potential to inject mentorship and knowledge.

Apprenticeships offer learning experience beyond the academic, and provide the platform to teach skills not generally taught in formal academic environments. Those skills include time-keeping, inter-personal interactions in a work environment, corporate structure, accountability, business ethics and reporting. There is a school of thought that suggests any person needs 10 000 hours before becoming an expert in a certain trade or skill. Those hours are not productively achieved sitting in classes, but rather in applying knowledge learned.

South Africa is a country replete with corporate social debt and the relative immaturity of its political role players often results in misguided economic policy, particularly where the entrepreneur is concerned. However, a positive spinoff of this is the driving of corporate social responsibility programs. As with many such policies, the idea is excellent but its implementation under legislative pressure is misguided. Billions of rands (hundreds of millions of pounds or dollars) are spent by corporates on multiple programs which, on the face of it, are there to benefit poor communities and the geographical regions in which those corporates have made their wealth. Truthfully, many of those programs are meaningless.

Corporate Social Responsibility

No doubt, managers and executives to whom this responsibility is given within those corporates will slam down their cups of coffee furiously at the preceding sentence, but after mopping up the coffee, they should rather admit it. They should take a good, creative look at their CSR (corporate social responsibility) role and assess how those billions could be more sustainably spent. I am not for one moment suggesting that charities are not worthy causes – but the underlying sustainability of the work done by that charity is critical. Many readers will know the principle that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day; but if you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime.

The eager entrepreneurs expressed their frustration to me when I questioned why they would possibly approach me of all people. These two, young men were willing to learn, full of ideas and enthusiasm, but dramatically constricted in the reality of their access to knowledge and experience.  Regardless of their eagerness to become businesspeople and their open acceptance of formal educational limits, their real problem lay simply in the fact that they had no other options. Aspirant businesspeople often wonder where to turn and how to make their way into a boardroom, any boardroom, just for the chance to be heard. And in this, lay their answer about why they approached me… I was one of very few willing to listen.

Here is my challenge to the managers of corporate social responsibility programs and expenditure across South Africa: spending money is easy – foster a program in terms of which your staff and executives spend time! Spend time on young dreams and offer programs for apprenticeships.

Vocational training might be seen as less glamorous than a university degree, but it has been, and continues to be, a most effective manner of training and development across the world. If South Africa makes an honest and open assessment of the quandary its many ill-educated and unemployed youth find themselves in, it should take glory and glamour out of the social disposition.

The goal of young South Africans should be self-improvement and achieving/creating employment. One of the most useful and tangible ways to achieve this is to create acceptance that apprenticeships are real education.

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About rudiernst

I practiced as a qualified attorney for a number of years before leaving the legal profession in search of avenues to explore my great passion - business! I'm now part-owner and MD/CEO/general dogsbody of a small ecommerce business. We own and operate a number of online stores selling a huge array of products in South Africa, SADC region and Europe. My business? Your success! is about sharing business experiences with aspiring, young, South African entrepreneurs - to give them access to insights of numerous successful entrepreneurs familiar with the unique operating environment of the South African businessperson. The purpose of the website is to make information available to entrepreneurs in a series of easily understandable articles, each focusing on a different business lesson and highlighted with everyday experiences.

2 thoughts on “Apprenticeships are Real Education

  1. One of the very important posts I have read in the past few days! The other day I learned in a different blog about how frustrated the Civil Engineering fraternity is about the lack of capacity in government to deal the very ambitious infrastructure (worth billions of rands) programmes. It all ties up with what Rudi is pointing out; there is a general lack of resources in this country to enable young guys to prove themselves, thereby moving out of poverty; whether through the tender systems, education systems or entrepreneurial programmes. I had hoped the National Planning Commision would look at this holistically, we’ll see what Ramaphosa and co can come up with.

    • Thanks Sihle, yes let’s hope that Ramaphosa’s business acumen comes to the fore… Somebody pointed out recently that he has been a member of the NEC for some time with no real impact, but possibly with his elevated status within the party and country, he can spearhead some productive economic policies.

      We started our Progress Project exactly because of the lack of entrepreneurial support and hope that it will be able to provide exactly what it lacking for young aspiring businesspeople – hopefully, that in turn will lead to job creation.