Apprenticeships are Real Education

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.

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