Jonathan Jansen

Why youngsters kick the trade option to the curb

Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE
Picture: 123RF/FRANNY ANNE

If you want to see South African citizens agree on anything with respect to education — and that’s not easy — talk about sending more students to study for a trade.

Let more of them become useful by going for training as electricians, plumbers and welders.

This redirection is usually made because of the now familiar inverted pyramid argument: that too many students want to go to university (the broad base of the pyramid) and too few to technical college (the small and sharp apex of the pyramid).

We need to turn that scenario upside down, with most going to what we now call technical and vocational education colleges (TVETs) and the elites into universities.

Such reasoning normally comes with a snort of resentment that goes something like this: this is what happens when government closed down the trade schools and the technical colleges — look at the figures for youth unemployment.

In that nostalgic account, youngsters then could work with their hands and even start their own businesses rather than wait for government handouts.

And as an enthused friend told a small crowd of young people last weekend, whom I had just addressed, “if you learn a trade like underwater welding, you can even earn more money than the professor over there.”

I swallowed hard, not because of the obvious truth about my salary, but trying to imagine who the hell would want to weld in watery depths.

As I fielded calls this past week from parents in all the provinces about not getting a place in university despite having a Bachelor’s (university entrance pass), it seemed like the easy solution to the crisis — find a TVET that will take you and learn some practical skill.

Much of this is simplistic reasoning, so let’s unpack the argument for redirection of fresh-out-of-high-school youth from universities to technical and vocational colleges.

One, there is a very good reason that young people do not want to go and ‘learn a skill.’

Hanging heavily in the consciousness of black South Africans (and indeed, of other African countries) is the colonial and apartheid association of ‘working with your hands’ as something designated for not-white peoples.

I know it is an overused phrase, but remember the words of the apartheid architect, Hendrik Verwoerd? ‘What is the use of teaching the Bantu child mathematics when he cannot use it in practice?’

In fairness to this evil man, that sentiment went back centuries before in the making of modern SA (as early as 1663, first skills schools for slaves and others) and propagated in later years by influential education figures like Charles Templeman Loram in the early 20th century.

That weight of history still hangs over us: whites do academic education while blacks work with their hands.

Just to be clear though, working in the technical or trade schools does mean working with the intellect; hands do not learn or move by themselves.

But that is an argument for another column. What I do know is that changing that perception of vocational education and training as ‘appropriate’ for presumably less capable students is a very difficult thing to do.

Two, our technical and vocational colleges, with notable exceptions, are dumping grounds for those who did not get into university.

The TVETs typically lack three things: highly skilled lecturers in the latest technologies; state-of-the-art equipment that relate to the world of work (such as AI-driven technology); and cultures of teaching and learning that engender pride in acquiring high level competences as graduates.

When I was told about a teacher in a primary school getting a lecturing job at a TVET without any training in advanced technologies or the use of complex equipment, I understood instantly why especially our rural colleges have become ‘cooling spots’ for unemployed youth until a reasonable job opens up somewhere.

The Minister has made major investments in these TVETs and they get a substantial share of NSFAS bursary allocations — but he has not resolved the conundrum at the heart of these colleges: they are not attractive places for young people to learn high-level skills.

The university degree, on the other hand, holds status and potential.

You are perceived in the job market as more trainable and therefore more likely to land a job, even if it is not in your immediate area of studies.

A newly qualified teacher and a journalism graduate, for example, have many more job options available to them than a TVET graduate.

This is the harsh reality of the job market and students know it even if, as a result of poor school results and the offer of a fat NSFAS bursary, they end up in these colleges anyway to pass the time.


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