Learning and work - a job for a lifetime

Graphic: John McCann

Graphic: John McCann

My four visits to South Africa have been spaced out at rather pivotal points in the country’s recent history, in general, and of South African career guidance in particular.

The first was in 1978, under the apartheid regime. The second was in 1994, soon after the end of apartheid and the formation of the new ANC government. These were followed by a visit in 2008 and my current one.

So I have seen snapshots, which have accentuated my sense of the changes. I have not lived through these changes, as many of you have, and therefore cannot fully understand them, as you can. But I can perhaps see them in starker relief, from my outsider perspective.

My 1978 visit was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. I was invited to give some lectures at the University of Cape Town, under the auspices of the British Council. I had strong views about the immorality of the apartheid regime, but I had never been here and I wanted to see it for myself.

So I agreed to come, under two conditions: that the conference was nonracial and that before it I would have a chance to visit different parts of the country and to talk to people. I had some good friends who knew South Africa well, and they told me where to go and who to see.

I spent some time in each of the four main parts of the country at that time: not only the “white areas” but also one of the Bantustans (Ciskei), an urban township (Soweto), and – most movingly of all – one of the informal settlements (Crossroads) where the black workers whose labour was required by the economy, but who were not allowed to bring their families with them, lived illegally with their families under constant harassment. In all these places I met many wonderful people, who told me their stories.

I learned so much from my visit. After it, I wrote an article, titled Career Guidance under Apartheid, in which I tried to encapsulate some of what I had learned. Three things in particular are perhaps relevant here.

The first is that career guidance is highly political. Because it is a ­personal service, often delivered by caring people, it tends to neglect and even deny this. But it cannot escape being so, because it is linked to the allocation of life chances, which in all societies – but in some more than others – are distributed unequally.

This presents issues both to policymakers and to practitioners. Does it support the status quo, so reinforcing the inequalities? Or does it challenge them? Does it only serve an economic agenda? Or does it also serve a social agenda, concerned with social equity and social justice?

Does this have implications not only for the distribution of these services, but also for the ways in which they are carried out? I have explored in various publications these issues in relation to other countries, including my own. But much of it is based on what I learned here.

The second is the need to develop concepts of “career” and of “career development” that are relevant not only to middle-class people in privileged settings, but also to people in much more economically impoverished settings. It is crucial to do so, partly in the interests of social mobility – to ensure that wider opportunities are open to them too – but also to build the capacity of such communities and to enable people to live better lives within them.

So what is the role of “career” and “career development” in, for example, a poor rural community in South Africa? What is for sure is that these terms need to extend beyond formal institutions and to embrace the informal economies and informal learning. It was this that led me to explore the implications of the informal economies for career development.

There are three such economies: the household economy, involving the production in the household of goods or services; the communal economy, involving exchanges outside the household in which no money changes hands; and the hidden economy, covering work undertaken wholly or partly for money that is not declared for tax purposes (as sociologists JI Gershuny and RE Pahl wrote in their 1979 article, Work Outside Employment, in Higher Education Quarterly).

These are large economies in all societies, and major forms of work for most people. But in South Africa they are inescapable. So again I learned much about this here.

Democratise education
Accordingly, our concept of “career” needs to move beyond progression up ordered hierarchies in formal organisations or formal professions – an essentially elitist model – and to be democratised to cover everyone.

The concept I favour is: the individual’s lifelong progression in learning and work. The use of the word “learning” is designed to embrace not only education and training, but also informal learning. The use of the word “work” is designed to embrace not only employment and self-employment, but also work in the informal economies. But the retention of the word “progression” focuses attention on the potential for growth and change that lies in all of us, regardless of our contexts, and which sensitive career development services can help to support and foster.

In India, incidentally, the concept of “career guidance and livelihood planning” is being widely adopted (as several scholars have described) to adopt and promote the concept of “career” but also to link it to the practical realities of making a sustainable livelihood.

A third lesson I derived from my first visit to South Africa was the importance of the voluntary, community and nongovernmental sector as a base for career development services. At the time, the careers services in institutions controlled and paid for by the state operated within the political constraints imposed by the apartheid regime.

Moral credibility
The most impressive services I found were based outside such institutions, linked to churches and other community centres, or within nonprofit-making nongovernmental organisations supported by ­philanthropic companies and international donors (such as the Careers Research and Information Centre in Cape Town). These organisations were able, albeit often with intimidation from the political authorities, to work across the state-imposed racial boundaries and to build a moral credibility that was almost impossible in the public sector.

This raised for me the issue of whether the third sector was a more natural base for career development services than either the public sector or the private sector. Of course all three sectors have contributions to make, and the role of government and of public policy is crucial if there is to be universal access to such services. But perhaps the voluntary, community and nongovernmental sector has a distinctive role to play, and perhaps public policy should give much more attention to how it can work more effectively through that sector.

I have pursued this possibility in the United Kingdom with colleagues there, exploring the different kinds of relationships with individuals that can be forged by such organisations – epitomised for me by two of my colleagues, Ruth Hawthorn and Judy Alloway, as being symbolised in the English context by the welcoming cup of tea! Again, however, I gained a lot of my understanding about this in South Africa.

By the time I made my second visit, in 1994, a substantial number of such nonprofit community-based career centres had been established across the country and had formed themselves into the South African Vocational Guidance and Educational Association.

It was just after the end of apartheid and the formation of the new ANC government – a time of great excitement and promise, alongside recognition of the scale of the challenges faced by the new government in creating a more just and equitable society.

The purpose of my 1994 visit was to help the association to develop a strategy for career guidance in South Africa that could harness the experience and creativity of these organisations in transforming the more formally based services inherited from the apartheid regime.

Influence still evident
By the time of my third visit, in 2009, most of these nonprofit community-based organisations had folded, but their influence was still evident, notably in the exciting proposal to establish a career helpline that would reach out into rural as well as urban communities.

At the same time, there was a concern that this helpline should be viewed not as a stand-alone service but as a core element of a broader strategy for career development in South Africa, drawing from international exemplars but also grounded in the indigenous realities of this country. Since then, much progress has been made in launching the service and developing the strategy. It is to this that I will now turn.

For this part of my lecture I have drawn on a number of recent documents. The core, seminal document is the Framework for Co-operation, which the higher education and training department and the South African Qualifications Authority (Saqa) published in 2012. The framework is extremely impressive. Indeed, it represents one of the most impressive strategic frameworks I have seen in this field from any country, includingthe North’s high-income countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Not the least of its impressive qualities is the evident care that has been taken to learn from the experiences of other countries, while also addressing the distinctive characteristics and needs of South Africa. From an external perspective, eight elements of the framework are particularly noteworthy.

First, it has a strong formal status and strong political endorsement. It is part of one of a series of outcomes agreed by the Cabinet, with binding delivery agreements involving many spheres of government and partners outside government, and with a clear timetable for implementation. Lead responsibility has been given to the higher education and training department.

Lifelong in scope
Second, the strategy is lifelong in scope. The vision is to ensure that “all people, of all ages, have access to quality career information and career services throughout their lives”, as the framework document puts it.

Third, the strategy is based on co-ordination and partnership between a variety of government ministries and other bodies. Their complementary roles are clearly defined and, in addition, provision is made for the establishment of a national career development forum and of provincial career development forums to ensure the sustainability of the co-operation and co-ordination arrangements.

Fourth, the strategy is based clearly on a learning model of career delivery. This is evident in the adoption of the overarching term “career development” and in the references to the development of career management skills.

It is related to the international trend from a psychological to a pedagogical approach (from testing to tasting), perhaps accentuated here by the way in which the psychometric approach was in some measure discredited by the ways in which it was used under the apartheid regime, as I wrote in 1978.

Fifth, considerable importance is attached to the improvement of career and labour market information, as the essential base for effective career development services. Under the leadership of the the higher education and training department, Saqa has developed a national career advice portal covering learning pathways, a learning directory, an e-portfolio function, and an occupational information centre, now housed in the higher education and training department itself; the second stage of its development is under way.

Sixth, much attention is given to the imaginative use of technology in the delivery of services. In particular, South Africa is the first middle-income country to have developed a careers helpline, and scholarly publications have recognised it as one of the world leaders in this field.

Developing an evidence base
Seventh, attention is paid to the importance of research and evaluation to develop an evidence base that will support the rationale for and continual improvement of career development services.

Finally, there is a clear recognition of the importance of a strong values base to support the framework of career development services. The set of principles include respecting the dignity, equity and human worth of all clients and upholding their best interests at all times, but also seeking to “redress the imbalances of past discriminatory, ad hoc and fragmented delivery”.

There are strong resonances here with the statements in the white paper for post-school education and training, published in January, about “eradicating the legacy of apartheid” and building “a nonracial, nonsexist and prosperous South Africa characterised by progressive narrowing of the gap between the rich and the poor”.

This is a huge challenge in a country that – as stated in Saqa’s 2012 publication, Environmental Scan of Career Advice Services in South Africa – is classified as an upper-middle-income country in terms of gross domestic product per capita, but is also ranked as one of the most un-equal countries in the world in terms of income distribution; the legacy of apartheid, from which it is bound to take time to escape.

Professor Tony Watts is a visiting professor of career development at the University of Derby in England. This is an edited excerpt from the Annual South African Qualifications Authority chairperson’s lecture, titled Towards a Strategy for Career Development in South Africa: Progress and Challenges, that he gave in Johannesburg on September 10

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