You Can Make It In Life Without A Formal Degree

business people in motion blur

We did not need Statistics South Africa to tell us that young people in our country have a serious skills deficit. It’s pretty self-evident.

What was alarming was the statistics that show that it’s primarily young, black South Africans whose skill levels have regressed over the 20 years of democracy, compared with other race groups.

In a country intent on legislating equality in the face of entrenched white privilege, the failure of the state to provide an environment that nurtures its youth is probably the biggest single failing of the democratic dispensation.

“Black youths between the ages of 25 and 34 lost out in acquiring skills through the 20-year period and that is the crux of the issue of youth unemployment,” said statistician-general Pali Lehohla. The architect of Bantu education, Hendrik Verwoerd, would approve.

As children knuckle down to their matric exams, parents across the country ponder their uncertain future. Even if their children get sufficient points to gain university entrance, recent statistics suggest that more than half of them will drop out before graduating.

And those that get degrees are not guaranteed jobs. The South African economy is practically stagnant as business cuts back aggressively and efficiency becomes the currency for corporate growth.

The future for jobseekers looks bleak, despite studies in the past 12 months by the likes of independent analyst JP Landman and another by Goldman Sachs, which came to roughly the same conclusion: that South Africans are generally better off than they were in 1994 and the average standard of living is considerably better than it was at the dawn of democracy. Democracy has also provided more South Africans with a greater opportunity to become prosperous than ever before. The big question is whether that momentum will be sustained.

One of the biggest obstacles South Africa faces is the growing chasm between the public and private sector. Stanlib chief economist Kevin Lings describes it as the missing piece of the puzzle of the economy and the biggest threat to the future.

For the economy to grow and for more South Africans to prosper, he argues in his recent book, The Missing Piece, there has to be a greater level of co-operation between the state and business.

Valuations on the JSE reflect, however, how most big companies have diversified their risk and profit streams outside the country over the past two decades and continue to do so.

Koos Bekker, former Naspers CEO who is currently on sabbatical before rejoining the group as chairman, caused a furore last year when he explained why his firm invests more heavily in other countries than it does at home: South Africa has a dearth of the skills required to drive the businesses of the future.

We simply do not produce maths and science graduates of sufficient quality and in sufficient volumes for firms like his to invest substantially in growing their businesses here. The money is far better spent in India and China, where quality education is a national imperative.

Before you slash your wrists out of total despair, I had the privilege this week of rubbing shoulders with two of South Africa’s most successful university dropouts. They are Herman Mashaba, the well-known free marketeer behind the Black Like Me cosmetics empire, and Ian Fuhr, who dropped out of university in the 70s and is ironically also in the beauty business, with 108 Sorbet outlets that he has opened since 2005.

For Mashaba, the politics of the time made completing his studies impossible, and Fuhr quit to become a nightclub singer before lurching into an eclectic business career. Read their books – they provide useful insights on how to succeed against a tidal wave of negativity. They are reminders that a formal education is not the be-all and end-all of ensuring commercial success. The odds of making a decent living are considerably enhanced with a good education, but some of the worlds’ most successful current business leaders dropped out of formal education.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft without the benefit of a university degree, as did Larry Ellison and Michael Dell, respectively the founders of Oracle and Dell. Richard Branson didn’t even finish school, and would studying further have knocked the creative wind out of Steve Jobs’ sails?

Another well-known university dropout returned to the office this week after taking what he calls a grey gap year.

Johann Rupert completed his second year of a BCom at Stellenbosch, where he is now chancellor, before leaving to do a banking course at Chase Manhattan in New York. He returned to South Africa and was instrumental in the development of RMB and the FirstRand Group while developing the cigarette empire founded by his father into one of the world’s biggest and most successful luxury goods groups, Richemont.

South Africa needs skills urgently. A decent education is a key building block to developing them. But the statistics don’t lie and, tragically, a new generation of adults will more likely have to rely on their wits and tenacity to succeed than follow the route taken by the baby boomers.

by Bruce Whitfield: Award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.



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