Tertiary Training

Why Study?


Automatic success doesn’t lie with a university degree, and neither is someone doomed to failure because s/he wasn’t accepted into the best of the best university. The sooner we make that clear among South Africa’s youth, the sooner we can address the skills crisis and move towards more meaningful education and employment.

South Africa is suffering and has suffered for a long time from an educational elitism. Back in the 1980s, Eskom was already reporting huge shortages of skilled technicians. As a result, and also due to a number of other contributing factors, Eskom had to downscale its production, which eventually contributed to the state of electricity that we are facing today.

Eskom wasn’t lacking qualified engineers. It was lacking on the ground, hands-on technicians. Not the types of workers you would get out of a university, but from a technical college.

We all hear about recent graduates struggling to find work. Civil engineers begging for jobs on the side of the road. Qualified individuals with no employment. They did their time at university, got their degrees and graduated to a world that doesn’t need the career that they felt they were promised.

We are too quick to think that this is a grave injustice. That graduates deserve a job. But I disagree. A job isn’t about what someone deserves, but what is needed. As is the common refrain: the world doesn’t owe you a job. Neither does society nor employers. The importance of a job isn’t the raising of an arbitrary government metric but in contributing value to society and oneself.

With that in mind, it should be clear that it isn’t the responsibility of government or the private sector to give someone a job. It is their own responsibility to determine how they want to or can contribute to the economy and earn their way.

But this does not excuse the government, private sector and other stakeholders in our society for their damaging our possibility of employment.

It is true that regulations, a stifled economy and a myriad of other factors discourage economic growth and thus employment opportunities. But that isn’t the only reason. There are jobs available, and insufficient people to fill them. The fault of that is a culture - a culture that blue collar work is shameful, that one must have a university degree, and that a degree guarantees someone a job.

There has been a form of injustice inflicted upon South Africa’s children – the lie that we teach our kids that they must study at university, that they must enter a formal profession, that entrepreneurship is not a real job. It is a lie that is not only hurting their capacity to find the job truly suited to them, but also hurting the economy and society.

As was mentioned with the example of Eskom during the 1980s, there is a serious dearth of skills in many industries in South Africa. We have an extreme lack of technicians, artisans and, in essence, skilled workers.

Solidarity’s research shows that we are severely lacking artisan skills and are, thus, being forced to import much needed technical skills from abroad. This is in a country with over 25% unemployment and over 52% youth unemployment.

There is a growing need for electricians, welders, mechanics and other skills that can facilitate our manufacturing sector. Not only are these jobs crucial for the growth of a developing economy, but are very important positions for people who don’t want to or aren’t suited to the academically intensive work of university-linked employment.

Despite this, people continue to want to become scholars, rather than skilled workers. And if that is their passion, and their dream, then I can’t blame them. But it isn’t the passion of many people. Many people go to university and get a degree with the idea that it will get them a non-scholarly job. This stems from a huge misunderstanding of what studying actually means.

Which leads to the question:

Why Study?

As in everything, one needs to identify one’s goals. It is easy to say: I don’t know what I want to do when I grow up, or I’m not sure what I want to study, but that doesn’t solve the problem. You don’t need to know what you want to do and you don’t need to know what you want to study. But you do need to know your goal.

Is your goal the pursuit of a passion and do you have the resources to pursue it and the drive to turn that passion into a job? Then go for it. But going for it doesn’t necessarily mean going to university. Many degrees are unnecessary for pursuing a passion. If you want to become a writer, a degree in English literature isn’t necessarily going to help you. As a writer, I can actually say that what you will learn in English Literature will be detrimental to a great deal of your writing.

This is even more apparent when it comes to so-called entrepreneurial degrees. These are skills that are picked up on the job, through apprenticeships and through trial and error. All a university course in entrepreneurship gives you is a huge bill and a skillset that you will be learning all over again when you start a business.

University can be extremely valuable and can help you get a job. But don’t go to university thinking it automatically gives you a career. Only medicine almost guarantees a career and that’s because of the huge scarcity of medical practitioners. Other subjects aren’t so lucky.

So, it comes back to goals. If your goal is a particular passion or job, and university offers it better than the alternatives, then go to university.

But if the goal is to get a job, any job, then simply going to university won’t help you. It may even harm you.

As a humanities graduate, I can say now that studying the humanities with the idea that it will get you a job is a false hope. Humanities skills are important, and can be applied to jobs, but the only direct careers linked to most humanities subjects are academic. If academia is your dream, that’s great, but don’t pursue it just because you took a course in sociology that one time. Academia requires a natural passion that you may gain in university, but should have at least started before you began your studies.

But that doesn’t mean university won’t help with your jobs. Many professions do require licenses gained from completing courses, such as law. This is the same for non-university, technical subjects, as well. If your goal is to become a lawyer, because you have a genuine interest in the law and the predisposition to be good at it, then study law. But don’t study law just because you heard lawyers make a lot of money. (Watch Better Call Saul, for a more accurate representation of what life for many lawyers looks like)

Succinctly, if you know what you want to do and have a game plan, study if that is what is needed. Otherwise, look for other alternatives, like apprenticeships, technical colleges or even just going straight into the workplace.

The times are changing

With the pressure on so many students to go to university, there is an inundation of scholars and overly-qualified graduates who can’t find work. This should have been expected. There is a very small number of positions for the economic elite. And as more and more people study to enter this economic elite, it becomes harder and harder, and the rewards less worth it.

The irony of students studying at university to get a degree for a high-paying job (that possibly doesn’t exist) is that artisans are making more reliable incomes. Especially when compared to their peers who leave university and enter unemployment.

Sean Jones, CEO of the Artisan Training Institute (ATI) said:

“Artisans, however, are almost guaranteed formal employment and, upon graduation can earn R20 000 to R25 000 per month. That’s more than most university graduates will earn.”

This is compared to university students, who exhibit a 50% failure rate and huge problems adjusting to formal employment that has no space for them. This is simply because the economy needs mid-level skilled workers, and not more scholars.

Jones also speaks about the market disrupting nature of new technology, mechanisation and services like Uber. The economy is changing and while university may have been a shortcut to success decades ago, it no longer is. Perhaps, it is even a detriment, as it prevents people from critically examining their own life, passions, skills and opportunities.

Sol-tech, affiliated with Solidarity, states that one of the reasons there is such a shortage of artisans and skilled workers is that students are simply choosing the wrong subjects.

Dangers of continuing down this path

South Africa is a developing country pretending to be developed. Students rush to university to study subjects that, for all their worth to society, aren’t going to get them a job or uplift the economy. As a result, we do not have enough skilled workers to maintain our industries, much less lead to economic growth.

Many students pick the wrong subjects in university, with 50% of students failing, on average. Instead of students who are ill-suited to elite subjects struggling through university for a non-existent career that they don’t even want, students should investigate technical colleges, apprenticeships and even career paths that don’t require a tertiary education. Any of that is better than wasting time and money on the incorrect subject.

We are approaching an education bubble, if we haven’t hit it already. With too many people taking degrees like law and engineering that they think guarantee them a job, the value of those degrees is going down. As the supply of graduates rises, raising unemployment among those with the degree that cannot find work, the value of the degree declines. But the expense of studying the degree does not lessen. It takes the same amount of time and increasingly costs more money. All this means is that graduates will be earning less and less money as they go for jobs that they think will make them rich.

If we continue down the current path of a culture that decries technical skills and encourages everyone to go to university, regardless of which subject they end up studying, then all we will be accomplishing is more and more unemployed scholars and fewer of the people we need to develop the economy.

What we must do about it

South Africa needs a fundamental cultural shift on how we approach education. At the home and in schools, teachers and parents need to ingrain in their children that there is no shame in not going to university. What there is shame in doing - is doing nothing. Rather than attempting a degree that they do not enjoy and cannot handle, many students should rather critically examine what it is that they should do.

We must face the fact that not everyone is suited for university, and that is fine. There is more value in someone doing what they want to do. If what they want to do isn’t a university subject, they should look into doing a technical degree or apprenticeship that helps them get a job that they do want to do, or simply will enable them to get a job so they can pursue their hobbies and other dreams.

We must remove the shame culture of going to technical colleges, entering apprenticeships or starting work straight after high school. There is much more value in a person who is productive regardless of some haughty degree than a person with a degree that refuses to work in a “demeaning” job.

Schools must address their role in this problem. They have not adequately prepared students for picking university subjects and determining what careers they should pursue. Rather, they continue down a path of uniform, standardised testing that has been condemned again and again by a variety of experts. Schools must re-think their curricula in order to prepare students for all types of pursuits after school.

So, we return to the original question: why study?

  • Study a subject because you are genuinely passionate about it.
  • Study a subject because you need it to get the career you genuinely want.
  • Study a subject because it will genuinely contribute to your desired job.
  • Don’t study a subject because:
  • You think it will get you money.
  • Because your parents told you to.
  • Because a TV show made it look lucrative.

It all returns to value-judgements and your goal. If your goal is a particular career, then identify what you need to fulfil that career. If your goal is just money, regardless of the job, then you should consider becoming an artisan, who is much more likely to get a stable, high-paying job in this economy.

You may not even need a formal degree. One of the highest paying industries at the moment is IT. You can learn programming languages for free online. You don’t need to go to college. Many companies will recruit young programmers with free course certifications or after they prove themselves in internships.

Hopefully, this article will convince readers that something needs to change in South Africa’s educational culture. The shame of technical skills must stop and we must make a concerted effort to encourage students to embrace technical colleges.

And more than that, we must bring back a culture of apprenticeships. It is already true that most skills are learnt on the job. For appropriate jobs, studying should be cut out of the picture and job-seekers should be given a chance to prove themselves at a job through other types of induction processes.

And above all that, students need to be trained to be open-minded, creative and thrifty. The world is changing, and spending years getting a degree that may become unmarketable is a risk that too many people are taking. As market disruptions and economic woes continue, students and all individuals must learn that the new age isn’t as certain as getting a degree and then a career.

The future is dominated by creative, multi-skilled individuals willing to do what it takes to succeed. That means looking past the degree, putting away the shame of doing a technical skill, and hustling for better opportunities at all times.

The final lesson is that if you have some sort of idea of what career you would like to pursue—start now! That doesn’t mean applying for a desk-job. If you’d really like to become a writer, start writing now. If you’d like to become an artisan, pick a skill and start researching it and practicing (safely!).

The competition is rough. The economy is looking woeful. Studying is no longer a ticket to success, but the future is bright for people who are willing to work at it. So, identify your goals, critically analyse how to fulfil them and then ask yourself why you need or don’t need to study. If you do this, not only South Africa will prosper, but you will too.

Nicholas Woode-Smith

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This edition

Issue 58