Building the next generation of graduate professionals

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Picture: Leon Lestrade African News Agency (ANA) Archives

We all know that the economy is in serious trouble, and that our lack of economic growth is the cause of all sorts of other woes, among them high unemployment, persistent poverty and, ultimately, social unrest. When it comes to fixing the problem, the lion’s share of attention is focused on what policy changes are needed to reignite economic growth. Of course, policy is vital but the best policies in the world will not deliver results sustainably if the economy lacks its most vital resource: talented, trained and motivated people.

People with the right skills and motivation are always is in short supply, but the shortage is growing more acute as the nature of work itself changes so rapidly, a process that is becoming more marked as the Fourth Industrial Revolution gathers pace. We routinely speak about “the war for talent”, and the analogy is apt, especially in South Africa where the talent shortage is acute and worsening.

To put it bluntly: if our educational system does not produce people with the right skills in sufficient numbers, we will continue to experience low economic growth and all its attendant evils.

Of course, any modern economy requires diverse skills, but one thing is certain: a steady supply of graduate professionals is one of the key requirements, especially as economies digitise and become smarter. In particular, graduates in the so-called STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines are in high demand, and short supply.

Given PPS’s 75-year history in providing financial services to graduate professionals, it seemed we were ideally placed—and morally obligated—to get involved in finding ways to improve the flow of graduate professionals into the economy, particularly those in the STEM areas. It was this imperative that drove the formation of the PPS Foundation in 2016, and after two years of operation, we have learned some valuable lessons about what is needed and what works when it comes to assisting students to complete their degrees and, critically, make the transition into the world of work.

During the course of 2017, we visited several of the universities to find out what was needed on the ground. The overwhelming conclusion was that while financial support is essential, it is not sufficient. Graduate throughput remains a key concern for the universities, and is compounded by, the severely disadvantaged backgrounds from which most students come. In some courses, the first-year dropout rate stands at 50 percent. Students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds need a range of complementary support interventions to help them complete their studies and then find work. For that reason, our bursaries cover not only tuition and books but also accommodation and meals. The bitter truth is that many students are hampered by something as basic as hunger.

In addition, many students need psychosocial counselling and mentoring to make the transition from an often-substandard school environment into the university one, and then again from university into the workplace. Academic counselling is part of it, of course, but there also is a need for help with interpersonal dynamics, managing finances and so on.

Our wraparound approach to university student support provides an holistic structure spanning first year to graduation. Unfortunately, with limited financial resources, this kind of approach can only be offered to a limited number of students—we are currently funding 61—but we are also involved in broader initiatives targeting both students and universities. These include support for feeding schemes at places like Stellenbosch, Fort Hare and the Tshwane University of Technology.

Another major focus area of the Foundation is helping graduates get jobs. Again, the need is for a multi-faceted approach. Aside from a graduate internship programme at PPS itself, we have created an online portal to provide students and young graduates with access to employment opportunities and information that will help them make the transition from academia into the workplace. Another intervention is a three-day intensive programme to provide graduates with the skills they need to land that vital first job. Mentorship by our own staff as well as members is also something we pursue vigorously.

While programmes will change—what remains is that an holistic approach is required to equip the students to succeed, and also the commitment to support the whole process, from entering university to a successful launch into the working world. It recognises the fact that the challenges that are holding many students back are not simple, like a lack of money; solving this complex problem requires a response that rigorously addresses the student as a whole.

Having come up with what we believe contributes to such an answer, we have moved to make it easier for others to participate in what we are doing. We have established an online donation platform that will facilitate regular giving (of money and time) by those who are inspired to support education. In that way, hopefully, we will build even greater traction: the need for work-ready graduates is great and growing.

Vuyo Kobokoane is the PPS Foundation Executive Head.