My Brilliant Career - Dr Nhlanhla Thwala

My Brilliant Career

1. Tell me what Pearson does (please do not use jargon, explain what the company does as if you are talking to a young child.

Pearson is focused on two main functions –

(1) Developing learning resources like education books and various digital instructional and learning resources to help teachers teach more effectively and for students to learn more effectively.

(2) In South Africa, Pearson also offers university education directly to students through Pearson Institute of Higher education across 12 campuses located throughout the country.

2. What do you do at work most days?

Three things:

(a) meetings,

(b) documenting and updating project status reports, and

(c) responding to emails and phone calls.

I am responsible for the academic work of 12 campuses in various parts of the country. In addition, I regularly meet with other Pearson colleagues in various parts of the world – the UK, USA, Brazil and India on a variety of projects.

3. How did you end up doing the work you do? (Please give a brief outline of some of the work you have done previously.

I started as a high school teacher in 1986 and then in 1987 I joined the University of Swaziland as a Teaching Assistant teaching Academic Communication Skills and English Literature. In 1988 I received a Fulbright Scholarship to study for an MA in Linguistics at Syracuse University. I then went to the University of California in Los Angeles where I completed a PhD in Linguistics in 1995. In 1996 I started teaching at Indiana University in Bloomington and then in June 1998 I joined Wits University as a Lecturer. I remained at Wits for the next 16 years except for a three year stint at the University of London from 2004 to 2006. In 2014 I joined Pearson as MD for the CTI Education Group. I became the Acting Academic Director of Pearson Institute in March this year. In all these years, my life has concentrated on higher education teaching and academic management.

4. What is the skills gap and how do you think the government and business should address it?

The skills gap refers to the inability of the labour supply to provide the skills required by industry to employ and grow business enterprises. In South Africa, the skills gap is unique in that there is a high unemployment rate, especially among the youth, but jobs frequently remain unfilled because those who need jobs do not have the skills employers require.
There are two ends of the skills gap challenge.

(a) The looming crises of the 54% unemployed youth and

(b) the overall education value chain which produces graduates without the skills required in the 21st century.
I am really passionate about the high youth unemployment rate. I think there is lot business and government can do to change what we currently see. I think the solution requires a Marshall Plan-like effort in the next 3-5 years focused on intensively equipping the 54% of unemployed youth with the practical scarce skills which have been identified by various official documents including the National Development Plan, the Human Resource Development Strategy for South Africa 2010 – 2030, and various SETA skills surveys. I would suggest that we use the SETA skills funds to run this programme in order to ensure that the current youth who will be tomorrow’s adults have a meaningful stake in the society. But most importantly, we need them to provide for their children so that we can reduce dependence on social grants in the future. Government and business should really come together address this matter together. For business, it would be an opportunity to train for the skills they require. For government, it would be an opportunity to resolve one of the most pressing social crises we face as a nation. There is a lot to say here which we can explore further.

5. Children in high school are bombarded with the question "What do you want to do after school?" and many of them have no clue; how do you suggest they approach that question and find a career that is right from them?

I am ‘old school’ in that I really believe in aiming high in order to motivate myself to strive for the seemingly impossible. I therefore would encourage children to be brave and identify any career that excites them and motivates them to raise their game as they grow. I appreciate that as children grow, the ‘chosen career’ may change. That is immaterial. The point is to have an ‘aspirational goal career’ at every stage of development in order to cultivate discipline and focus. With regards to finding a right career, I always advise young people to be open minded and willing to experiment with different career trajectories. The right career is an individual’s choice conditional on how rewarding the career is to the individual in question.
6. What did you want to be when you were a child? Why?

At first I wanted to be a policeman! That did not last long. Then I wanted to be medical doctor because my elder brother studied medicine. When I realised that doctors spend all their time with sick people, I lost interest. Then I wanted to be a lawyer. They seemed so powerful, well dressed and well spoken. The idea of being a judge was intoxicating. Of course I ended up as a teacher. That was purely by accident. By the time I was admitted to university, my preferred choices of programmes to study for were over-subscribed. So, I had to settle for a Humanities degree plus a diploma in education.

7. What do you enjoy most about the work you do? Why?

I enjoy the variety of what I deal with daily. There are no two days that are the same. I am not good with routine work. I also like the variety of people I work with.

8. What part of your job would you prefer not to do? Why?

Dealing with employee disciplinary matters. It is something one is expected to do. But it is certainly not something I enjoy because it is unpleasant but necessary. A close second is marking student scripts. I did my time and I do not miss it.

9. What is the best career advice you have ever received and who gave it to you?

Find a cause you care about for which someone is willing to pay you to pursue it. Surround yourself with people who share the passion for your cause and you will never have to motivate them. I was given to me by Professor Philip Motibwa, my History Professor in my undergrad years.

10. What would people find most surprising about the work you do?

I am not sure there is anything surprising about my work. Education is pretty much well known to most people.