By Paul Thomas
Suiting up!While a small handful of students have the luxury of studying only for the sake of personal growth and cerebral stimulation, the vast majority are motivated by a force far less noble: the desire to get a good job. This factor requires us to question, when choosing a course of study, the extent to which an academic programme will make us employable. One might argue that there exists a simple heuristic: select a ‘scarce skill’ (in South Africa careers underpinned by maths and science are prime examples) and study towards that vocation. However, this rule-of-thumb does not serve those of us whose aptitude and passion lies in an area not classified as a ‘scarce skill’ vocation.

For these people I propose a more fundamental heuristic – one which applies across all vocations. To maximise employability, a student should occupy an optimal point on a continuum of technical and conceptual skills. If a graduate has only technical skills, he risks potential employers asking “I can see he knows what he’s doing, but can he apply it meaningfully in this context?” At the other end of the continuum, a graduate with only conceptual skills (critical thinking, analytical dexterity, creativity, problem solving, insight and intuition) may hear “I can tell she’s very clever, but what can she actually do?”
By way of example, a photographer who can take beautiful pictures (a technical skill) but does not understand the power of visual images to convey meaning (a conceptual skill) may struggle to find gainful employment. Similarly, an English language specialist who understands all the rules of sentence construction but cannot use words to change behaviour or perceptions may struggle to convince an employer (or consumer, in the case of self-employed entrepreneurs) to pay for these skills.
Even within the ‘scarce skills’ arena, a structural engineer may be able to build solid dwellings that can withstand all weather conditions but, unless she can understand the complexity of South Africa’s socio-economic context, she may well build homes that fail to meet the financial, cultural and social needs of South Africans. Conversely, an engineer that understands the conceptual underpinnings of South Africa’s housing crisis, but lacks the technical expertise to build solid structures, may find himself unemployable.
In all sectors of our economy, South Africa is in need of “highly adaptable knowledge brokers with the ability to develop rapid and insightful understanding of an issue and communicate these insights effectively” . These ‘knowledge brokers’ require both the technical know-how to solve complex problems and the conceptual deftness to provide creative solutions to South Africa’s persistent socio-economic problems. The future of South Africa lies in the ability of the next generation of professionals to “continuously reconceptualise problems and avoid redundant responses” .
1.Thomas, P.N. & Naidoo, A.V. (2006). Psychological consulting in South Africa: The emergence of a new practice modality and its implications for training. New Voices in Psychology, 2(1),  46 – 64 (ISSN 1812-6731).
2.Thomas, P.N. (2007). Does learning work?  Lessons from a misaligned professional training programme  
Paper prepared for the International Researching Work and Learning Conference, Cape Town, S.A.