MechChem Africa

Peter Middleton recalls a time when the words transformation and empowerment were about skill development towards employment and career success rather than shuffling the ownership of company shares and land.

Peter pic latestFrom 1994 to 1996, I worked for PROTEC, an NGO trying to increase the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering university level engineering courses. PROTEC runs a three-year Saturday school programme for learners taking mathematics and physical sciences to matric level, a programme that includes as essential supporting subjects, English and career/workplace studies. The idea is to prepare youngsters for entry into engineering courses at university, first, by helping them to achieve the necessary admission grades, and second, to give them some life and problem-solving skills in order to help them cope at university and in the future.

Having trained as a school-based technology teacher in Scotland, I returned to South Africa at that time to add a technology component to the PROTEC programme and to develop a practical, problem-driven extra-curricular technology course. At the outset, we identified the mission of the course as: ‘To encourage and enable more and more of our young learners to take up technological careers’: In principal, the activities we developed had to be rich in terms of advocacy and motivation for technical careers and developmental in terms of practical and problem-solving skills.

It was an exciting time. Nelson Mandela became president in April of 1994, and we were part of a new South Africa, transforming education and empowering our youth – transformation and empowerment have long been entrenched as powerful and emotive goals for the success of our new nation.

Technology was adopted as a school-based subject by the first outcomes-based curriculum for South African schools and through PROTEC I was involved in the development of this early curriculum. The implementation of outcomes-based education, however, was a spectacular failure, leading to an early and more prescriptive curriculum rewrite. While technology remains on the curriculum, its transformational nature as an open-ended, solutions-driven subject that empowers people to learn on a need-to-know basis, has been almost completely lost.

We are fast approaching 25 years since the rainbow times of Nelson Mandela’s first government and from an empowerment point of view, it seems that little progress has been made. The words ‘transformation’ and ‘empowerment’ stubbornly remain at the centre of current compound phrases: ‘broad-based black economic empowerment’; and ‘radical economic transformation’; but their use is skewed from the education, skills, career and employment focus of old.

Ownership of the economy – of land, shares, businesses, the supply chain into state-owned enterprises, and the transfer of ‘monopoly capital’ out of the hands of its current ‘white’ owners – has become the replacement transformational obsession.

The transformation of our whole society, which remains necessary and increasingly urgent, depends on people becoming genuinely empowered. But empowerment depends on people having a set of necessary skills to help our industries and businesses to thrive: soft skills that come from a good basic education, such as communication, numeracy, problem-solving, independence, work ethic, time management, positive attitudes, team work, self-confidence; along with job- and trade-related skills, such as IT, plumbing, electrical wiring, motor car assembly, welding, carpentry, construction and myriad others.

The value of a trade-based career remains undervalued, while the need is acute – and the current over-focus on university-education is not helping. Hamied Mazema in this month’s SAIChE IChemE member profile talks about teaching his “pet subject” at Cape Town College in the early 1980s: N1, N2 and N3 level courses in water and wastewater treatment. The course targeted operating personnel from public and private water facilities, who had to be registered and certified to N3 level in the field. Mazema describes this experience as “very rewarding because some of the individuals I taught have developed from operator level to senior management positions in the water and wastewater sectors.”

A successful career does not depend on a person having a university degree. Many high-level managers of today began their careers in the practical trades. Today, Mazema’s ex-students are dealing with a crisis of note, and surely in need of many more well trained people with practical problem-solving skills to help them overcome the province’s water woes.

Skills lead to employment and successful careers, and people with successful careers are empowered, economically and with respect to opportunity. In addition, empowered people with skills are ideal candidates for starting their own successful businesses.

There are no short cuts, though. We have to reapply our minds to school-based education, career training and university courses – especially in the technological fields. We must find ways to transform our schools, training colleges and universities into efficient and affordable development facilities, expand the number of employment opportunities and make careers more attractive and accessible to our modern youngsters.

By empowering people in this way, our nation will transform far faster than it will by shuffling company share and land ownership.

BANNER 8

Contact MechChem Africa

Title: Editor
Name: Peter Middleton
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za or peterm@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Editor
Name: Glynnis Koch
Email: mechchemafrica@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622 4770
Fax: +27 11 615 6108

Title: Advertising Manager
Name: Brenda Karathanasis
Email: brendak@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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