Hard work and the right attitude is what employers want – international research by UP and partners shows

Posted on October 26, 2020

A good attitude and hard work will indeed get you far in life – and there’s empirical evidence of that. This is according to the results of a study that was led in part by Professor Berendien Lubbe of the University of Pretoria’s Department of Historical and Heritage Studies, and was funded by the European Union’s Erasmus Plus Capacity Building Programme.

The study evaluated the perceptions of students, lecturers and representative from various industries in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Finland, and is part of a project known as SUCSESS: strengthening university-enterprise cooperation in South Africa to support regional development by enhancing lifelong learning skills, social innovations and inclusivity.

SUCSESS focuses on collaboration between universities and industry. By benchmarking against best practices, the project aims to show how students can benefit through experiential, project-based and enquiry learning. “This is a three-year programme, and will run until 2022,” says Prof Lubbe, who is leading the research phase of the study.

“There are six partners in the project,” she adds. “In South Africa, these are the University of Pretoria, the University of Johannesburg and the University of Zululand. The international partners are the University of Oulu, and Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences in Finland, and Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

“All the partners are working towards the common goals of increasing the employability of students, and focusing on how institutions of higher education can collaborate with industry and the public sector to ensure that students are equipped to participate effectively in industry.”

The aim of the study was to establish the extent to which the teaching environment is preparing students for a career by improving the competencies and skills required by industry, and how collaboration between higher education institutions and industry is contributing to their work-readiness. It surveyed 509 students, 40 lecturers and 28 representatives from various industries across the three countries. The students that participated in the study are currently studying in one of three fields: tourism, hospitality management and business management.

According to findings, some of the attributes that top the list of what industry wants from graduates include a constant willingness to learn, good communication skills, as well as a good work ethic and positive attitude. Apart from the required technical skills and knowledge, graduates who exhibit personality traits such as adaptability and people skills (attentiveness, friendliness and an outgoing nature) are preferred by industry.

Researchers also questioned industry players on the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic would have on the workplace. “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the question of unemployment in South Africa into sharp focus, and industry was almost unanimous in their opinion on how difficult it has made finding employment for students,” the report reads. “Some predictions given by very experienced and high-level management players was that the tourism sector might fully recover to pre-COVID-19 levels only in 2023. Organisations will first re-employ staff members who had to be let go during the pandemic, and only when the company shows growth will students again be considered.”

However, according to the report, industry representatives also offered advice on what students could do to make themselves more employable. “Apart from working towards self-employment in this time, having (and demonstrating) the right attitude – which encompasses passion, flexibility, innovativeness, creativity, a willingness to learn, tenacity and grit, and also being prepared to go the extra mile” – will go a long way.

Getting “a foot in the door” is also more important than seeking the ideal job, the report shows. Additionally, students should consider offering their services in such a way that companies do not see them as another cost, but rather as an asset, with their fresh ideas and youthful energy.

The next phase of the study, says Prof Lubbe, is capacity-building. A training programme will be launched early next year where 10 lecturers from each university will be part of a series of training workshops, both in SA and Finland, on new pedagogical approaches and the use of innovative technologies for collaboration with industry.

Because of capacity constraints in SA – large classes and industry having limited places for students in work-integrated learning programmes – Prof Lubbe says technology should be the foundation of collaboration between higher education institutions and industries.

“Physical collaboration between industry and students will be difficult,” she says. “I believe a way to achieve [better collaboration] is by using technology. Of course, you can’t do everything through technology, but you can do a whole host of things. We should look at the facilities at our respective universities, especially the technology labs; buy software-based technology, based on industry projects to allow students to sit on campus, in a lab, and they work through industry buy-in and start developing collaboration activities you can do online.”

- Author Masego Panyane

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