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Let's make jobs work

One lazily waves a flag to slow you down; another sits chewing gum (you hope) while waiting to move the yellow barrier out of your way when they release you to go; and a third walks aimlessly back and forth across the road.

I watch these three young people and realise how this country delinks work from education, labour from development. The three youngsters are bored stiff. For the whole day, they sit in blazing sun waiting for cars and trucks to come and go while inhaling a steady dose of dangerous exhaust fumes. Yes, they have temporary jobs thanks to the massive roadworks springing up all over the country. Interesting though, how these jobs, materialise around party or national election periods; but that is a subject for another day.

At least you have a captive audience of young people. Now imagine if these young people at every stop were taught mathematics as they sat there. They would be required to count the number of cars passing by, and the number of trucks. They would count the number of occupants per stationary vehicle. And they could identify the origins of cars by number plates. That data would be very useful for all kinds of transportation planning purposes.

But, in the meantime, these youth could learn not only maths, but how to use a calculator and complete a self-administered survey questionnaire. They could discuss results and compare traffic flows on weekdays to weekends. In other words, not only would the hands be working, so would the heads.

Imagine an entrepreneur gave all these stations a mobile refrigerator with ice-cold drinks for sale in the Karoo sun. In the 10 or 20 minutes of waiting, the youths could learn how to account for income and expenditure on a balance sheet instead of sitting there waiting.

While a vital cold drink service was offered in the heat, learning could be taking place.

With the growing number of unemployed youths floating in and out of temporary jobs, and with the increase in the numbers of semi-literate adults who did not finish school - or finished school with weak foundational competencies (writing, reading, calculating, reasoning and so on), we need to make every job count as a simultaneous learning experience.

We do the future of this country no favours by exacting physical labour from workers without asking three questions:

  • What are the educational inputs required for this work?
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  • What are the educational experiences worth organising in this work?
  • What are the educational consequences of this work?

There was a time when South Africa had the most noble, inspiring visions for adult education and literacy. We recognised the many who were left out of schooling either because they sacrificed their education during the struggle or they dropped out to work to enable a sibling to continue in school. Now nobody in government talks in these elevated ways about non-school education for adults.

We spend all our time fighting over the crisis in formal education. This loss of focus on the learning needs of working adults as well as unemployed youth and adults is a tragedy.

The three young workers will become unemployed again when the roads are repaired. Then what?

They could either leave those jobs with the kinds of elementary skills and insights learnt on the job, or they could leave only with compromised lungs from car smoke.

This kind of ambition for learning is something I constantly raise with my colleagues. If the workers who work at the university do not leave with more and better education and skills - whether they work for the institution or for contract firms - we would have failed in our duty as a place of learning. This kind of orientation towards building a learning society requires a dramatic shift in the ways employers think about work, especially among those who had little opportunity for formal education.

So if your domestic worker leaves your employ after many years and she is still a domestic, let me be blunt: you are a terrible employer.

Leadership Development
Leadership Development
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