As education firmly grasps the local spotlight, I find myself re-exploring the question, what is an education worth?
Once we get past the immediate and very real challenge of the price of education, and therefore the cost of access to it, the question of its value remains. What is a qualification really worth? It seems to be a forgone conclusion that without one, you simply won’t have viable job prospects. This is of course true in most situations, but that’s not because of WHAT you learn, but rather a case of having the right piece of paper that gives you a foot in the door with an employer. This gives the employer a first stepping stone to feeling that you can, in fact, do what they expect you to do.
The reality is of course quite different. Not only can most students DO very little upon leaving university but most successful examples of top achievers and entrepreneurs are not working in fields remotely related to what they studied.
So what is the gap between having an education and having a job, and hopefully, a career? How does an education deliver value to you by translating into a career?
As the #bosslady of 5FM I regularly get asked how people can apply to work at 5FM. I understand why. It’s an amazing place to work. The daily reward in bringing youthful South Africans together through the power of music is something that most people would find incredibly rewarding. But there are 14 permanent staff members within the 5FM team and 50 independent contractors. That’s 64 people with the minds and hearts of 1.7 million listeners in their care. What I am therefore often forced to say to those seeking work with the power of 5 is not that they aren’t experienced or qualified enough, but that there simply aren’t any available positions.
To broaden this context I calculated the following; there are 238 radio stations measured by Nielsen in the quarterly RAMS diaries. Assuming each station has approximately 60 people working for it in some capacity that’s 14 280 jobs in radio…there are 52 million South Africans. Competitive doesn’t cover it. So I can afford to be very choosy when it comes to hiring. A qualification and good marks are just the beginning; I expect a wealth of unique and innovative experience and a candidate that is so memorable that they stick in my mind for months.
There is clearly a gap between a graduate and a ready-for-work candidate. I spent some time with course co-ordinators at Boston City Campus recently. They are industriously assessing the radio industry in order to translate the needs of the employer into their curriculum to produce the best ready-for-work graduates they can. Now that’s a noble thing and I commend them, but I fear my input was less helpful than they would have liked. This is because it’s not WHAT you learn, it’s what you can DO with what you learn that really counts.
A qualification is just the beginning. You can teach someone as much as you like, you can make them complete reading, assignments and exams, you can put them through their theoretical and practical paces, but you simply can’t substitute time on the planet. There is no way to speed time up, just as much as there is no way to slow it down, and nothing will prepare someone for the working world except work itself.
So the best combination for anyone studying or trying to get work in a fiercely competitive and very scary world, is to have both a qualification and as much experience as possible. It’s never really too early to start work. A prolific body of practical work, over and above any minimum requirements that a qualification expects from you, is no longer a way to enhance your CV, but a necessary aspect of how you can prove to an employer that you can do the job and do it well.
I sound like the grim career reaper, but there is some good news. Any and all experience counts. No matter what kind of work you can get (of course within the boundaries of keeping yourself safe and making good life choices), it’s going to teach you something. Anything you learn is worth learning. The more hours in the cockpit, the better pilot you are. It was Malcolm Gladwell who advocated the idea of the 10 000 hours. When you hit 10 000 hours of experience in something, you are likely ahead of the pack and that makes you a valuable candidate. It can take 10 years to make an overnight success.
Now access to education is a basic human right in my opinion. And the fees increase proposed at the start of #FeesMustFall are ludicrous. And there are some serious challenges in this regard that our government must find ways to resolve. But an education is just a passport, you only start travelling, experiencing and learning things after you get it or after-hours while you are trying to get it. The value of an education is therefore determined by the recipient of that education. It is the right to commence a career, the opportunity to learn and the start of a long journey of experience.
Justine Cullinan (@shoeshanista) is station manager for 5FM (@5FM)
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