Never underestimate power of putting in the hard yards

Pinned to the wall in my office are two quotes: “No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking,” by Voltaire; and “So think and think, and think and think, and think and think some more. Think until your body aches and till your mind is sore. For thinking never killed a man, it only made him grow. The constant search for betterment to strive and find and know,” by South African motivational speaker and poet Vince Higgins.

They serve to constantly remind me that thinking, not just any thinking, but a conscious effort to think with an open mind, can produce purposeful and progressive solutions. They need to be applied and pursued with professionalism, application and perseverance.

In a world in which so much happens instantly, there is a tendency to delude ourselves that we no longer need to put in the perseverance hours to achieve mastery, but of course we do.

Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule, which suggests it takes at least this amount of time to master and become successful at whatever it is we are pursuing, makes the point that we cannot hyperspace time. Every single hour, and every 60 minutes of every hour, is required to hone that skill.

With this in mind, consider the millions of unemployed young people in our country. The longer people remain unemployed, the more difficult it is for them to be employed. What can we do about this, and where are the models we can think through and learn from to change this situation?

Look no further than Germany, which is both a manufacturing powerhouse and a global standard for the technical training of young people based on an apprenticeship model. This model started with the signing of a formal pact in June 2004 between industry and the German government’s ministry of economy and technology, ministry of labour and social affairs, ministry of education and research, and industry. Called the National Pact on Vocational and Educational Training, the target group is school leavers. It has the full support of industry, which includes the large, medium and small enterprise sectors.

Companies work closely with regional technical schools, offering apprenticeships and sponsoring programmes to prepare students so that they are immediately job-ready on graduating. They don’t do this as an obligatory corporate social investment; they do it because they recognise it as central to sustaining the competitive advantage of German industry and to securing the provision of qualified staff in the short, medium and long term.

For these reasons, German industry invests €28bn annually in this training, and it trains as many as 1.6-million apprentices each year in a wide range of industries.

In the past 10 years, more than 10-million apprenticeship contracts have been signed.

In SA, apprenticeship training fatally fell out of fashion some years back and we urgently need to revive it. There is value in looking at the German model, not only from an apprenticeship point of view, but also from a small and medium-size enterprise (SME) development perspective.

The backbone of Germany’s economy is not BMW, Siemens, Volkswagen, BASF, and other big brands, it is its wealth of SMEs, many of them family-owned businesses. About 99% of all German companies are SMEs. They employ two-thirds of German workers, and nearly one-third of them work in the manufacturing sector.

Germany’s other winning ticket is that it focuses on niche markets — from heavy-duty casters and wheels to photovoltaics.

There is so much to be learnt from the Germans, but we cannot cherry-pick certain aspects of their model and not be prepared to put in the hard yards.

Gladwell emphasises that thinking and learning needs to be accompanied by many hours of hard work, carried out with purpose and commitment.

Hard work is not old-fashioned; it is the route to advancement in whatever job you do, whether it is plumbing or physics, bricklaying or business-development. All are equally important to the development of SA.

This is something else we need to think about, and think again and again, until we deeply value the skills of every member of our society. For, the constant search for betterment, as Higgins puts it, is “to strive and find and know”.

First published in Business Day on Wednesday, 13 April 2016.

 


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