SA not ready to abandon university degrees as a mandatory requirement

FNB Wealth and Investments Head of Talent Tshidi Khunou discusses the importance of qualifications.

The notion that organisations need to think differently about their recruitment criteria, especially when it comes to mandatory academic qualifications, is a tricky one. People can learn anything they want nowadays and become very proficient in all fields of study without completing a course at an academic institution. Organisations are increasingly recognising that taking a more inclusive view to recruitment, considering people who have had formal and informal apprenticeships, and those who have learned skills through online training programmes.

In recent years we've seen companies like EY dropping the requirement for applicants to have a bachelors degree in the UK. Similarly, IBM, Google and Apple have broadened their scope of recruitment criterion in recognition of that notion that university degrees were not necessarily a good predictor of job performance. In fact, it is widely accepted that vocational courses and on-the-job experience offer more relevant training for many tech sector positions than a four-year degree.

That said, I don't think South African companies should be adopting this approach to recruitment – yet.

Qualifications are the basic foundations that illustrate to recruiters that a person is able to execute what is expected of them. Secondly, a qualification adds more value if you have supplemented it with other types of experience. I always say to young people that, if you were the best-performing student in your class, but you have zero people skills, you might as well have not studied at all. Because you might find that the person that used to get Cs in your class will get the best job because people are not looking at the grades you got but rather that you completed the qualification.

What people don't often realise is that there are some things that will work in developed countries that will not be implementable in underdeveloped countries.

If you look at the quality of matriculants in this country right now, we cannot say that those young people are at all ready to engage in the corporate world and be able to communicate effectively or deliver any meaningful value. To put it bluntly, our education system is just too poor. When you consider the fact that we still get university graduates that still don't know how to properly send an email, that shows how far we are from doing away with having university degrees as requirements for recruiters.

University gives you more time and gives you other skills besides qualifications that are key to a person's development. In South Africa, the degree shows us that, while you are not fully ready to add value to the organisation, it means you have a certain level of discipline and that your language skills are at least at a level where you can be taught to add value.

We are not Switzerland

My wife is from Switzerland where the post-schooling education system into two types of career paths. There are professional qualifications, which are the accountants, doctors, lawyers, engineer and so forth, which are structured professions that require a very specific body of knowledge that must be tested for competency. The other option is for people to go into hands-on professions where students need to get apprenticeships in companies that then award them with diplomas that demonstrate competence. A person in Switzerland can go into HR or logistics based solely on the experience that they have had.

The companies offer these apprenticeships are aware of the specific outcomes that people need to learn and they give them tasks and projects based on those requirements.

That, to me, makes more sense that what we have in South Africa where the perception is that everybody needs to go to a university to have a better chance at finding work. We do have technikons and FET colleges that have a similar objective to the aforementioned apprenticeships but they have delivered a mixed bag in terms of producing students who can thereafter find jobs and start their own careers.  

Too many unemployed graduates

Tertiary education is not the answer to all our problems and that is reflected in the number of unemployed graduates out there. And this is another reason why corporates can't start dropping university qualifications as a requirement. We live in a country where more than a quarter of the population is unemployed. Youth unemployment, according to Stats SA, is at a whopping 38 percent, and that's the conservative figure because it doesn't take into account the people that have given up looking for work. Of those who are unemployed, how many have degrees and diplomas, and how can we as corporate South Africa then go on to say qualifications are no longer a requirement?

There are non-profit organisations like YES and the Harambe Youth Employment Accelerator that, with the assistance of the government, are actively trying to address this issue by equipping young people with soft skills and work experience but the unemployment problem is an insurmountable mountain to climb.

Switching careers is a different story

For those who have extensive experience in a particular area, yes that experience is more valuable than a qualification. But that experience only qualifies you for that specific competence. People should not be expecting to be hired into professions and roles that they have no experience in by virtue of past performance in a different role. If you come to me to tell me that you have 15 years' experience as a process engineer, for example, but you want to come to join a bank in a different capacity, I am going to need proof of your ability to deliver in that field of expertise and you will need a qualification for that. You might be the best process engineer one has ever seen, but you might struggle as a stockbroker for example. Your experience as a process engineer at whichever company you are currently with is not always useful if that's not the role for which you are applying.

However, if you want to change roles within your existing company, that's an easier thing to do because the company is aware of your work ethic and is able to refer to the value you have delivered as a process engineer and will thus have a reliable data point to refer to in order to justify placing you in a role for which you do not have the requisite qualification. 

That is why my advice to anybody that is looking to learn new skills, or gain experience in a different role, try get that experience from your current company as they are more likely to give you that opportunity and bear with you as they find your feet.