A new initiative has set out to break the old catch-22 dilemma facing young job-seekers – can’t get work because of no experience and can’t get experience because of no job. Tom Nevin has the details.
A total learning facility that answers the young job-seeker’s universal lament that “I can’t get a job because I don’t have experience” and “I don’t have experience because I can’t get a job” is offering a brighter future for young South Africans entering the job market.
The University of Johannesburg’s Resolution Circle is an innovation company redefining the way a more informed and savvy young worker is made workplace ready for the demands of a fast-moving economy.
“We want to turn out young workers who can walk into a new workplace with the confidence of knowing that their hands are as knowledgeable as their heads are,” said Resolution Circle’s CEO, Professor Willem Clarke, at the recent first anniversary and official inauguration of the operation’s new 12-laboratory building, Resolution Circle Nano on the UJ Auckland Park Kingsway campus. In just 12 months, the project has grown from a makeshift one-room ‘headquarters’ to its impressive new building.
“Resolution Circle is a dedicated, high-tech research and development space where multidisciplinary student teams are supported by technical experts, addressing specific problems that are presented by their industry partners,” says Prof Clarke.
It is a University of Johannesburg (UJ) owned operation concerned with work-integrated learning programmes for engineering diploma students, and with an interface between the university and the engineering industry. It provides research and development resources, enterprise development, technology development and incubation services.
UJ is not alone in offering such students work-ready support. “But we are exclusive in our commitment to industry by having a standalone company, and not simply another department, dedicated to the delivery of workplace-ready people,” says Prof Clarke.
Funding for the project came through a substantial capital injection by the UJ, along with land, buildings and initial seed capital. The National Skills Fund provided funding for equipment and 24 months’ running expenses. Commercial projects, industry partnerships and other activity should make the undertaking self-sustainable from 2015, Prof Clarke says.
Preparing young graduates and diploma holders for their plunge into the economy is just one aspect of Resolution Circle’s quickly developing academic and commercialisation repertoire, as it explores ways of not only being a problem solver, but also of opening avenues for taking such solutions into industrial application.
“A chasm between industry and universities has existed for a long time,” says Prof Clarke, “partly because there is no defined commercial interface between the two parties. The result is inadequate awareness in industry of relevant research solutions, as well as relevant and important commercial problems never coming to the attention of the researchers who could potentially solve them.”
He observes that UJ has embarked on a strategy of technology innovation, and a drive to commercialise more of its inventions and technology, while creating new start-up companies. “Along with engineering as a discipline, we’re well positioned to support this drive, especially given its focus on new product development.
“In a nutshell,” says Prof Clarke, “Resolution Circle is UJ’s answer to the long-standing industry accusation that universities do not deliver workplace-ready people.”
It partners with industry on projects, with learner-employee teams under supervision of experienced professionals, using industry grade equipment. Prof Clarke notes that “We get results by acting as an interface between industry and the university, to learn and transfer innovations into the teaching and research of the university.
“So, in effect, Resolution Circle is an integrated training, research and development ecosystem that delivers innovative technology-focused solutions to the industry, and I believe that we’re well on our way to becoming the leading provider of technology innovation and commercialisation in South Africa.”
Resolution Circle support comes with a pinpoint focus on new product development and open-door rollout of such services to industry as: basic research (through UJ); applied research & development; technical consulting; product testing and evaluation; commercialisation that includes prototyping, patenting, licensing agreements, company formation, start-up funding, incubation and acceleration; training and professional development; and product R&D.
African entrepreneur smarter
There is not much difference between entrepreneurism and innovation. Each requires an adventuresome spirit and an innate curiosity. In both the aim is the same – to succeed in something new and enterprising in ways that no one else has.
Does it make a difference that we are in Africa, and that we are Africans on a less developed landscape? Were our opportunities less than our peers in the developed world? Should we be more easily forgiven or sympathised with if we do not succeed as spectacularly?
New research is trashing this perception and obviates the question: Does it matter that you operate in Africa? In fact, it implies that you might be better off here. Explaining Africa’s (Dis)Advantage is a new study co-authored by US Wharton management professor Ann Harrison and published by the American National Bureau of Economic Research. “If you were to give African entrepreneurs the same kind of environment as an American or European entrepreneur, they would outperform their counterparts,” Prof Harrison maintains. By imagining impoverished African nationals on a level global playing field, Prof Harrison and colleagues Justin Yifu Lin at Peking University and L Colin Xu at the World Bank see ample potential for “a positive reinforcing cycle of development”.
African entrepreneurs toughen up under such disadvantages as insufficient infrastructure, inefficient telecoms, hard to come by credit and political monopolies that cripple these economies. “If one could adjust the daunting list of geographic locale, infrastructure, political, economic and institutional factors to the levels that exist elsewhere,” say Harrison et al, “Africa possesses an inherent advantage.” And this could be because African firms have had to become stronger and work smarter in order to survive such a challenging environment.
The evidence can be found everywhere on the continent. Self-taught bush motor mechanics, plumbers, instrument (including computer) repairers, carpenters and builders are prolific throughout Africa, ever inventive to the point of ingenuity.
In East Africa they are known by the Swahili term jua kali, meaning ‘hot sun’ because these artisans work out in the open, wherever they can find a convenient empty space. Their contribution to the community and local economy is incalculable.
Referenced in these terms, Resolution Circle is such a workplace, encased in four walls and a roof, equipped with modern tools and workspaces and staffed by experts from industry to take students to the next level of proficiency by teaching their hands.
“We are an integrated training, research and development ecosystem dedicated to the delivery of innovative technology-focused solutions to industry,” says Prof Clarke.
In many ways, Resolution Circle is a Petri dish in which cultures can grow and become something they were not, better and more productive, simply because the development terrain was made more equitable.
“Most UJ engineering students – diploma and degree – are first-generation students, many either from rural areas or townships,” says Dr Norah Clarke, responsible for the organisation’s training and development.
“In many cases, these students are financially supported by their extended families or communities, sometimes with the hope or expectation that the successful student will return the favour upon completion of their studies. A single student who completes a degree or diploma and is then employed could potentially inspire and assist her/his family and immediate community.”
However, Dr Clarke points out, these students have little local support while studying and often lack food and adequate accommodation. Students might lack life skills, discipline and technical experience and might not be workplace ready at the end of the studies. This could result in a slow start, limited career growth, or a failure to launch, “so Resolution Circle is a sustainable solution. Through the workplace readiness programme, each learner-employee becomes an exceptional value-contributor to the country,” she says.
The rest of Africa will be looking with great interest at this project – if it succeeds in South Africa, it can hopefully be replicated elsewhere on the continent.