When considering vocational trades in South Africa, there is a danger of a single story. This single story is the perception that vocational work does not pay very much or is “dirty work” and is not as good as going to university. This single story results in young people not recognising the value of aspiring to follow these career options. However, there is so much more that vocational trades can offer, as the practical skills acquired from these trades provide essential services for society. Tshepho’s* story is the alternative story that needs to be heard and shared.
Tshepo is 26 years old and grew up in a small village in Limpopo with his mom and extended family. His uncle worked as an electrician for as long as Tshepo can remember and encouraged Tshepo to follow the same career path as a good way to earn a living. As a child, Tshepo was fascinated by breaking things apart and attempting to put them back together again. His favourite memory of school was building a light switch for a science project.
In high school, Tshepo struggled with the more theoretical and abstract subjects (like pure mathematics) but persevered and ended up matriculating with average results. To some extent, he found school limiting as there didn’t seem to be enough of the practical application of the content which he most enjoyed. Like many of his friends, he aspired to go to university and study further, but this did not materialise because of his family’s financial difficulties. His family wanted to try their best to make sure he made something of himself and encouraged him to attend a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college as that was within their financial means. Tshepo’s uncle supported him going to a TVET college, as he knew Tshepo would be able to make a difference that he could see and feel with the practical skills he would get at a TVET college.
Initially, Tshepo was hesitant to apply to a TVET college as he thought that only people who were struggling academically and couldn’t get into university should attend TVET colleges and that the pay after studying wouldn’t be great. He tried applying for entry level jobs online and would make daily trips to internet cafés, but he struggled to find a job. He decided that going to a TVET college would be better than sitting at home and he also trusted and valued his uncle’s advice. So he began studying towards his N levels with the hope of becoming an electrical engineer! Once he started attending classes, he was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. When he received his first results, he was in the top 10% of his class and this made his mom and uncle extremely proud. He had never experienced this before. He also liked that no one could take the skills he was learning away from him. Tshepo is completing his practical training and is earning some money from this. His friends have approached him wanting to find out more about TVETs as they see that Tshepo is doing something he enjoys, getting paid for it and is making something of himself.
Tshepo is motivated to pay it forward to his community by being an example to other young people and especially some of his friends who are unemployed and at home. He wants to share the message that one can be successful even if you do not attend university. He also wants to expose the youth to alternative careers outside of university as he feels his school could have done more to expose him to these other options.
Tshepo has ambitions to own his own business using the skills he has learnt. Although he wishes that the TVET colleges had taught him more about the practical side of owning a business. Looking back at his life, he realised that even the small things he did showed some entrepreneurial intention. Whether it was selling sweets during lunch or after school or collaborating with other students and combining their skills to create businesses that provide basic services to society. Tshepo views an entrepreneur as a calculated risk taker and he is determined to become one by starting his own business one day when he feels he has acquired the necessary business and soft skills and has enough money to do so. Success for Tshepo is reaching a level where he can do what he is passionate about and earn money from it while giving back to his community.
While Tshepo’s story is fictional, it reflects the stories of so many young people- share your journey to becoming an artisan with us!
Tebogo Bore is from The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Endowment which is designing a programme to support entrepreneurs that have vocational or technical skills. Contact Allan Gray Orbis at
* Tshepho is a fictional character created based on the stories of young students currently at studying at TVETs.