With South Africa's high unemployment rates and limited university spaces, matriculants are often urged to opt for vocational training. But an education expert says that many people don't understand the various options available for school-leavers, and even fewer understand the opportunities available to those who follow the vocational training path.
“Vocational training refers to training that is specific to a career or a trade, meaning that it focuses on the practical application of skills in the workplace. Instead of just giving you theoretical knowledge about a certain field, vocational training helps you develop practical skills to perform a certain role, and enables you to be productive from the first day that you walk into a job,” says Barend van den Berg, MD of Oxbridge Academy, SA’s fastest-growing distance learning provider, responsible for the education of more than 20,000 students annually.
Van den Berg says there are countless benefits to pursuing a vocational qualification, but despite this, there is still a misguided perception that such a qualification counts for less than a basic degree from a university.
“Obtaining a degree gives you substantial theoretical knowledge in your chosen field of study, but that does not mean that you are prepared for the workplace or that you possess the practical skills you need to perform a particular job role,” notes Van den Berg.
“Although theoretical knowledge provides a foundation for further exploration and thought leadership, vocational training develops practical, immediately relevant skills which opens doors in the job market. The perception that vocational training is worth less than a degree is therefore false, as vocational learners acquire both theoretical knowledge as well as practical skills, which better equips them for workplace integration.”
Van den Berg says the career options in the vocational sector are virtually endless, and incorporate almost all sectors of the economy.
“Depending on which vocational training programme you complete, you could pursue a career as an electrician, motor mechanic, boilermaker, beautician, bookkeeper, computer programmer, graphic designer, office assistant, childminder, or HR practitioner, to name only a few of the options,” he says.
“It is also worth mentioning that it has become common practice for millennials to move around in the workplace and that they often change careers. Vocational training is ideal for them, as it gives them hands-on skills and is an accessible form of studying, enabling them to earn while they learn.”
In addition to being an effective way to open doors to many careers, vocational training is also a great option for aspiring entrepreneurs, says Van den Berg.
“Since these courses prepare you for the workplace, and are designed to fill workplace skills gaps, you have a good chance of finding a job. Most employers are familiar with these types of national qualifications, and recognise their value. And if you have entrepreneurial ambitions, you also have the opportunity to gain relevant knowledge and practical skills that will enable you to start your own business.”
A further positive aspect is the remuneration potential for those in vocational careers. “When it comes to remuneration, research has shown that vocational careers are often high-paying positions, and it is not unusual for someone with a technical qualification from a college to out-earn their peers with a general academic degree from a university,” says Van den Berg.
“This is because of the high demand in South Africa for a range of skills that will allow you to earn a lucrative salary if you have the right certification, experience, and training. Land surveyors, electrical technicians, riggers, executive assistants, HR professionals, web and software developers, and sales managers, for instance, are all positions that can be reached without a degree, and can pay between R35,000 and R75,000 per month.”
Ultimately, prospective students should make the decision about what and where to study only after having considered all their options, says Van den Berg.
But very importantly, this consideration should include the realisation that a university degree is not the only, or even best, option for everyone.
“Both a vocational qualification and a university degree are extremely valuable, but it depends on what you want to do with your life. If you want hands-on training that will help you gain the skills you need to pursue a specific career or trade, consider vocational training. If you want more in-depth theoretical training in your field, or if you want to pursue a profession that requires you to earn a degree (for example doctor, lawyer, or psychologist), consider university education,” he says.