There are a lot of careers to be had in the financial sector, but SA learners have to brush up on their maths skills first. Corporates are backing a number of initiatives to help them


Learners are often drawn to careers in accounting and finance because of the high earning potential, says Dennis Stead, partner and co-founder of PACE Career Centre. ‘I want to earn lots of money’ and ‘I want to become a millionaire’ are professional goals that frequently come up during school career-advice sessions, he says.

‘Lots of kids ask me in which job they can earn the most money, but that’s the wrong approach,’ says Stead. ‘One of the highest-paid entry-level jobs is that of an actuary, but it takes many years of studying, including some tough exams, to become a fully qualified actuary. So it’s not suited for everybody.’

School leavers don’t need to be academic high-flyers or mathematics geniuses to realistically aim for a position in finance or accounting. Staying within this career field, they can choose from a wide range of occupations with various pathways and at different professional levels, some requiring a diploma from a technical and vocational education and training college rather than a university degree as qualification.

The finance career group includes accounting, auditing, banking, risk mitigation, insurance, stockbroking, taxation, statistics, fundraising, quantity surveying and financial information systems.

‘The bottom line is that for all these jobs you have to enjoy numbers,’ says Stead. ‘And you need to take pure mathematics as a subject in high school rather than mathematical literature.’

Mike McDougall, CEO of the Actuarial Society of South Africa (ASSA), says: ‘The reality is that South Africa will have to continue importing critical skills as long as our learners do not embrace maths. A major hurdle to growing the society’s student numbers is the poor quality of maths and science education. This is, therefore, also a significant obstacle to transformation of the actuarial profession, preventing many learners from considering actuarial science and completing their qualifications.’ But even learners who excel at maths and have the potential to become an actuary tend to be more familiar with professions such as engineering, law and accountancy.

‘The majority of school leavers base their career choices on limited information and the opinions of friends, teachers and family,’ says McDougall. ‘Considering that there are fewer than 1 500 fully qualified actuaries in South Africa, most Grade 11 and Grade 12 learners are unlikely to have met an actuary and become inspired to pursue this career. Yet, actuarial science is no longer confined to traditional fields such as life insurance, short-term insurance, the retirement fund industry, healthcare and investments.

‘Instead, actuarial skills are now also sought after in fields as diverse as banking, telecommunications, environmental planning and, more recently, construction and mining.’

ASSA is collaborating with the SA Institute of Chartered Accountants to promote awareness of actuarial science among learners.

In another initiative, the society has partnered with social enterprise Paper Video to provide high-school learners with past exam papers and video lessons by qualified teachers in maths, physical science, life sciences and accounting. This doesn’t require internet access, which makes it attractive to under-resourced schools.

‘Subject maps assist learners in identifying specific topics to which they should pay more attention in order to improve their performance,’ according to McDougall. ‘Through donations, the Education Trust has funded the Paper Video resources for learners at more than 80 schools in previously disadvantaged communities and provided additional training for 130 teachers.’

ASSA is one of a number of professional bodies and financial institutions working to strengthen science, technology, engineering and maths education (STEM) in SA schools. Developing these skills in young people seems a logical link for those working with numbers as a core competence.

Most of these education initiatives are funded through CSI programmes. Of all the school subjects, maths and science continued to receive the highest percentage (38%) of CSI funding in SA, according to the 2016 Trialogue CSI Handbook.

Investec, for example, provides extra maths and science lessons to Grade 10 to 12 learners over weekends and school holidays. The Promaths programme, launched 12 years ago with Kutlwanong Maths Science and Technology Centre, has produced more than 2 000 alumni, many of whom have  progressed to study actuarial science, finance, accountancy, economics or engineering.

The FirstRand Foundation – the CSI vehicle of FNB, Rand Merchant Bank, Wesbank and Ashburton Investments – also has a strong focus on maths and science education. One such intervention is the nationwide Mathematics Education Chairs Initiative (in partnership with the National Research Foundation, AngloAmerican Chairman’s Fund and the SA Department of Science and Technology). In total, four Chairs focus on high-school maths and two on primary-school numeracy education.

Mellony Graven, who holds the Chair of numeracy education at Rhodes University, is tasked with creating a hub of maths activity, passion and innovation that blends teacher and learner numeracy development with relevant research. Her project team engages young learners in Grahamstown through ‘family maths’ events, after-school maths clubs and camps. In the Conversation, she writes: ‘After-school maths clubs were set up at schools whose pupils tend to perform poorly in the annual national assessments, which test numeracy at different grade levels. The schools are poorly resourced and don’t always have enough teachers. The pupils come from a poor community with high adult-unemployment levels.

‘The clubs have created the space and time for learners to work at their own pace. This is very useful for children who learn faster or more slowly than the majority of their classmates,’ says Graven.

‘The after-school maths clubs and homework drive have emerged as a way to strengthen agency by developing more active, independent and persevering learners. They have also bolstered learners’ maths marks.’

Barclays Africa – branded as Absa in SA – is running an equally innovative programme that has reached more than 200 000 young people in 2016, either directly or through training partners across Africa. ReadytoWork was launched in 2015, as a free, interactive e-learning platform to improve youth employment prospects and entrepreneurship.

Participants select their own learning pathway by using their computer, tablet or smartphone and choose from four online modules, namely work, money, people and entrepreneurship. ‘The programme also consists of 20 implementation partners to deliver face-to-face training,’ says Sazini Mojapelo, head of citizenship at Barclays Africa. ‘It enables increased access to employability and economic opportunity by supporting work-based exposure, job-shadowing and placement opportunities for students.’

Standard Bank’s Banking Skills Academy is a 12-month internship programme that exposes unemployed matriculants to various entry-level roles within the bank. Candidates receive a monthly allowance and, on completion, a national certificate in banking (NQF level 4).

Back at Absa, the group provides merit-based university scholarships for disadvantaged students. According to Mojapelo: ‘In addition to other disciplines, the scholarships support students studying finance and commerce degrees, which provide a pathway to enter the financial sector.

‘We are providing internship opportunities to the scholarship recipients, providing students with an opportunity to pursue a career in the sector.’

Internships, also known as ‘graduate development programmes’, present a great way for students to get a ‘foot in the door’ in the job market, says Stead. ‘As an intern you apply your knowledge from the classroom to the real world. It’s not unusual for employers to make a full-time job offer to interns who prove themselves.’

Coronation Fund Managers offers two-year graduate internships in personal-investment business development and in the client-services contact centre, with the potential of a permanent position on completion.

Nedbank’s graduate development programme intends to establish a youth talent pipeline to fill scarce skill roles within the organisation. The programme covers positions in corporate and investment banking, retail and business banking, IT, insurance, wealth and asset management as well as for chartered accountants.

Across the sector, the efforts in creating awareness of finance careers, raising the profile of maths education and boosting the STEM perfor-mance of young people, are already showing success.

‘We’re encouraged to see that a growing number of students and black students are choosing the actuarial profession,’ says McDougall. ‘According to the society’s membership figures, the number of African student members more than doubled from 463 students in 2013 to 971 students in 2016.’ And if learners looking for a well-paid, aspirational career need any more encouragement, he adds that ‘the actuarial profession has an unemployment rate that is practically zero’. 

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Gallo/Gettyimages