UJ’s Resolution Circle commercialising knowledge that drives student employability

The boundary between universities and industry needs to become more porous as new graduates grapple with the increasingly complex demands of a changing workplace. Armed only with their qualification confirming their academic achievements, graduates are often untrained, inexperienced and are not ready for the challenges and demands of the workplace. This observation is made by Prof Willem Clarke, CEO of the University of Johannesburg’s (UJ) of Resolution Circle, an innovation and technology company fully owned by the University.

Established in 2011, Resolution Circle is developing technology companies, training and building capacity for engineering graduates.

Says Prof Clarke: “Many graduates find it hard to break into the job market due to a lack of experience and practical skills. Companies experience delivery pressures and often find it challenging to take on interns or new graduates and provide them with mentorship and guidance.” He pointed out that most of the graduates in South Africa are first generation students and from rural areas, with the further implication that they require extensive life skills development in addition to just technical experience.

With an investment of R 400m through the National Skills Fund and UJ, Resolution Circle is the result of a four year research project to develop a business model based on international best practices tailored to the local environment and needs. Each year, around 200 electrical and mechanical engineering students, most of whom is studying towards a national diploma qualification, are given the opportunity and training to make them work-ready. They spend two years studying theory in class, and thereafter are required to spend a third year working in the industry to gain experiential learning.

On Thursday, 17 September 2015, local government officials; top technology industry experts; investors, donors and University Management will gather to witness another University milestone in skills harvesting – bridging the gap between student and entry-level employee, when Resolution Circle showcases its achievements through its Engineering Development and Innovation Programme. This event, scheduled for 18:30, will take place in the newly refurbished Perskor Building at the University’s Doornfontein Campus.

The makeover of the landmark Johannesburg’s Perskor Building includes Resolution Circle’s Technical Training Workshop and Small-scale production facility. Through expert advice, prototype development, high-level troubleshooting and skills development – the full spectrum of the value chain: “from idea to barcode” are analysed, explains Prof Clarke.

One often hears graduates saying that they are unemployed because they have no experience, says Prof Clarke. “In a few months, work-ready technicians and professionals will enter the job market better equipped to start with actual work on their first day. This is Resolution Circle’s fifth and largest intake,” says Prof Clarke.

He stresses that Resolution Circle is not an academic environment. It was designed to provide experiential learning to recent graduates in a commercial environment.

According to Prof Clarke, Resolution Circle’s main function is to commercialise technology products and services, and use that as a platform for the practical training of the students. Prof Clarke employed highly experienced artisans, expert technicians and engineers to train the students.

The students receive training on an array of hand tools for carpentry, electronics, industrial automation, sheet metal work, welding, and fitting and turning. “The training venues in the Resolution Circle ecosystem have become places where industry specific training is provided, to both interns and professionals. This benefits both industry and the University,” says Prof Clarke.

Each intern trains in the workshops for six months. They spend a month on the various trades on offer. Then they work in teams on an industry project in a laboratory environment for another six months at the Resolution Circle Towers.

“Universities are seldom in discussion with industry to develop research and technology that can be commercialised, and students are only taught theory relating to research and development. Thus, a deficit in university leavers’ experience and practical skills, makes it hard for graduates to enter the job market. The platform we developed is really the commercialising technology to support both existing manufacture and start-ups. And it means further developing technology to create jobs,” says Prof Clarke.

Developing patents in industry partnerships have become key. Industry approaches Resolution Circle with an idea, and the patent searches are done to identify the focus for the patent. Several new, provisional patents have been developed in this way and most of them have been commercialised through existing companies, using their markets, sales channels and manufacturing facilities. The intern base, concurrent projects and skills-development programmes provide a solid base for future development.

“We have some 30 new products on the market and 22 products on the starting phases. An example of one of the spun off start-up companies is IntelliLAB, a trans-media company, that produces reality TV series and content for marketing campaigns, such as the Twelfth African Gymnastics Championships,” says Prof Clarke. “Two-thirds of the products are being developed locally with existing manufacturers, a process that brings manufacturing home. That meets our goal to keep creating jobs for young professionals and making them eminently promotable.”

He explains that universities across the world are committed to pushing the boundaries of existing knowledge, but that this can be a long period. “We have to build the bridge and we have to find ways of doing that here and now,” says Prof Clarke.

Prof Clarke concludes: “We’re making our young professionals employable and promotable. It is encouraging to see that some companies are hiring the students before they complete the course.”

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