South Africa: John Autard

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John Autard - Interior Design Consultant

Interior Design Consultant John Autard Talks To Jim Playfoot About Developing Entrepreneurs And The Need For Change In South Africa

John Autard has spent nearly 20 years building a career in interior design and decoration. He set up his first studio in Cape Town in 1993 and has observed with interest the changing nature of the South African education system since then. As a small businessman and entrepreneur - and Chair of a recruitment agency geared towards the needs of his industry - he has an interesting perspective on the role that education can, and should, play in the development of work-ready individuals.


A Question Of Motivation

We begin by talking about the forces that drive people through their education. And in that, John sees a fundamental problem. "In South Africa education is geared towards getting a Matric certificate. Students and their parents just want a diploma, a piece of paper". The motivation of individuals is, therefore, to pass rather than to learn. This creates problems for those leaving education and looking for work: "When they go to the workplace they are told to forget everything they have learned." The relevance of the content, it seems, is not high on the agenda for educators or students. He concludes with a question: "People get qualifications, but can they then apply the skills they have learned?"

We talk more about wider 'employability' skills, and specifically about behaviours. John is unsure about the role education can play here. "Education has never taught people what they need to know about life skills." He believes that discipline is key, and that this has to start early. "You can't acquire behavioural patterns, these are instilled at a young age. You need discipline which comes from a strict education." At present, discipline is a problem within the school system in South Africa and this has to be addressed.


The Wrong Teachers; The Wrong Students

Beyond the challenge of discipline - which, one could argue, is an inevitable consequence of a stretched and under-funded education system - there are some more specific areas where education (and, particularly, further education) can have a greater impact on the talent pool. John believes the problem starts with the quality of teaching. He suggests that many of those teaching in further education in South Africa have little or no market experience. Part of the problem is the low wages - he highlights the fact that some lecturers in Cape Town can't afford a television. This, he suggest, creates a "strange subculture" where some faculty are cut off from the world they are, in part, teaching about. His conclusions are stark: "People who teach design are often those who have been unsuccessful in the outside world. When you are dealing with teachers with no aspirations, there is a problem."

John also highlights some issues around student choice. He argues that there needs to be better career guidance provided to students before they enter higher education, since many are not interested in the subject matter they are studying. If you have students who are not motivated to learn, and teachers who are lacking in experience and ambition, it's hard to see how the system can provide high quality, well prepared graduates. At the end of the day, "motivation for learning needs to come from students." A system that is focussed on the acquisition of qualifications rather than on personal and skills development will struggle to deliver.


Developing Entrepreneurs

As a small businessman with 20 years of experience in South Africa, John has a clear view about what is needed in order to help stimulate entrepreneurialism and what support is needed. His industry, in particular, is largely made up of "one man shows" with most people learning through hands-on experience. And even though he is positive about people setting up for themselves, he currently sees problems with the prevailing trend. Prior to starting his own business, he served a three year apprenticeship. These days, a typical apprenticeship lasts around six months after which many students feel able to set up on their own. Low regulation also encourages this. However, as John points out "Many make it, but many don't." He believes that the apprenticeship or 'learnership' system needs to be radically reformed: not only is this often abused by companies who use it as a source of cheap labour but the length of time students spend in a post falls way short of what they really need. "There should be a mandatory apprenticeship of 2-3 years for anything related to Industry." This would help give young entrepreneurs the tools they need to better survive and thrive once they launch their own businesses.

Training also represents a significant challenge - entrepreneurs need training to help them develop and to keep their skills up to date but small companies or one man shows often struggle to meet the associated cost. Not only that, the training landscape in South Africa has grown in recent years but not necessarily improved. "Training is becoming more unaffordable while those providing training are becoming less qualified." There is an increase in the availability of low-cost training but quality is questionable. "Many cheaper colleges are getting away with blue murder."

Improvements are necessary: one solution John suggests is that the job of teaching - particularly within vocational education - is shared so that one course is delivered by two lecturers working part-time. That way, they can both spend time in industry and updating their own skill set. Then they can bring that experience back into the classroom. Within John's industry, there is no shortage of enthusiastic entrepreneurs - they just need more appropriate career guidance, access to better teaching and the chance to serve longer apprenticeships.