HomeThe Future of WorkDifferent thinking needed to build the right skills

Different thinking needed to build the right skills

By Carol Butcher

South Africa is not building the skills that the economy requires.

“If we don’t get primary school right, secondary school isn’t where it should be, colleges are not right, universities are not right and then the workplace at the end of the value chain gets a 20-year old, entering the workplace without the right skills and competencies. It’s too late. We need a multi-decade perspective of proper value chain for talent management from early childhood development through to “I’m ready for the workplace,” says Marius Meyer, CEO of SABPP.

Meyer is critical of South Africa’s education system, higher education system, and the Seta model. “South Africa should learn from the German and Swiss models. Both countries have a good vocational system. We don’t have the skills that we need for South Africa’s success. The attitude in South Africa is that if you can’t become a medical doctor it’s not good enough to be a nurse. This is the type of thinking that we really need to change. We need to say our plumbers, our artisans are people with skills. This is what makes the German economy successful, and not only scientists and people with PhDs. You have to have that balance right in your economy.”

The massification of people in higher education is problematic. “One should never become too elitist. I don’t think it’s good for any economy if you simply expect all people to have degrees. You need to get that balance right. We haven’t done that yet,” Meyer contends.

Meyer recently informed a guest from Australia that there are 60 000 students at the University of Johannesburg and the University of Pretoria. The Australian replied: “What are you guys doing? In Australia, a good university has 5 000 students.” This is the size of Rhodes University.

Meyer would like to see the TVET system lead the economy: “Currently, TVETs are at the end of the value chain. It’s almost as though we’re saying, we’ve got youth unemployment let’s put them into TVETs. This is the wrong mindset. Think of a typical Hotel School, this is the way TVETs should work. You can acquire those skills in a relatively short period of time. You build this on excellence. If it can work in the tourism industry why can’t it work in other vocational areas? We need a national cultural shift in terms of how we look at vocational skills as a priority. We have around 900 000 students at universities and less than half of that at TVETs. That should be the other way round.”

TVETs should learn from the German and the Swiss models: “These countries have a good vocational training system, which provide the skills needed for the country’s success.”

There are unfortunately many problems with the TVET system: “The quality of lecturers is a problem. I would like to see a situation where we really drive quality in terms of excellence. It is possible. The TVETs don’t have the resources. They need proper support. There isn’t really industry collaboration between the TVETs and business that we saw in the 1970s and 1980s. There was a strong element of collaboration between TVETs and business. We’ve lost that. Even the Nursing Colleges, and Education Colleges, there were some good practices that we have not managed to save. We need to build a pipeline of nurses. Who can build better nurses than Nursing Colleges? It’s the dedicated focus on that particular talent segment that the economy really needs.”

Universities in the main, are not getting it right: “There may be certain pockets of excellence. In South Africa there are probably two or three universities that are getting it right, but the others are lagging behind.  If you look at the rest of the African continent, you don’t see any African universities in the top 500 in the world. In other words, we will never be able to drive economic growth that we really need to make human capital part of the success of our economy going forward.”

Meyer is a little more optimistic about the Seta model: “I have more hope that with Setas we will somehow get that right. However, bureaucracy and red tape and the wrong people are driving some of these strategies; this is a concern.”

Over the past thirty years, South Africa has tried various incantations of skills development; these have not worked: “The solution does not lie in a national skills strategy. It lies in a national talent strategy. This must not be government driven. If we look at the talent that we need for the country, we need to develop this in a collaborative way where government, business, and labour come together and say: What talent do we need? How many doctors do we need?  How many engineers do we need? And we build by prioritizing correctly, so that we don’t have a surplus of engineers and a shortage of technicians. That balance must be right.”

A national mindset will assist us: “If you know you need so many mining engineers you would not worry too much about who will control them. That is the downfall of the Seta system. We try to control industries and industries don’t want to be controlled. We’re ranked sixth in the world in banking. If I’m in banking, do we really need a Seta to tell FNB and Absa how to do banking? Surely they know the skills that helped them achieve their success. Let’s rather build a talent culture around this and say: How do we continue to build success? A similar strategy should be adopted for other industries.”

The solution lies in using the skills of industry leaders: “Why don’t we take a man like Raymond Ackerman and say this is the Raymond Ackerman School of Retail? He should train all retailers in the country. Won’t that achieve more than what the WRSETA can?  But then some bureaucrat will turn around and say: ‘No, sorry, Raymond isn’t accredited’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against quality assurance, I think quality assurance is key. Providers must be qualified, but if you create a system that is business unfriendly, and that is unfortunately what we’ve done, you cannot expect business to support it. Getting that balance between the needs of the business, labour and learners is what we really need to ensure that we are successful.”

There is also a lack of proper Career Counselling: “We’ve done a terrible job of career counselling. People aren’t properly assessed to know that they should go into a particular direction. People study what their parents tell them to study or they study the cheapest option, or the easiest option because their maths and science marks were too low. We go into fields for the wrong reasons; this is costing the economy. Sometimes a person only realizes in his third year that he should not be in law. They have already wasted three years of cost and resources and energy and we probably kept a better law student out of the system.”

We don’t assess young talent coming out of schools and we don’t do enough to encourage that talent to excel at an early age: “Yes, you can develop talent, youth talent is there, but for some reason we don’t unleash it. There aren’t mechanisms in place to really unleash talent and then to support it, whether by way of funding or the right opportunity. I believe there are highly talented people somewhere in this country but no-one knows about them, or we have not properly utilized them. We really need to put in more energy to make sure that talent gets the opportunity that they really need to be successful.”

As for South Africa’s “ticking time bomb,” the 3.6 million NEETS, Meyer believes this is an opportunity: “Surely the economy needs them as well. There must be certain areas where they can be utilized. It is also true that while people may have skills in certain areas there must be a fall back positon. Maybe I’m good at economics and management, but perhaps I could go into pharmacy. So, you almost have an alternative career path. We like to box people according to where we think they must be, but there must be opportunities for people to apply skills. I also think that the NPO sector is neglected. So, even if I don’t get the job in the big corporate in Sandton, there is a community project. All I need to do is give people skills and knowledge so that they can begin to acquire certain skills.”

Meyer would also like to see a bigger internship drive: “The success rate is as high as 85% that if a person has the opportunity, he will eventually be employed full time. If only we can get that recipe right of giving people exposure. There are opportunities, but because we are so narrow minded – to think I have to work in Sandton, or I have to be in a big corporate people lose out on opportunities. There are definitely work environments, even school is a work environment. A school will never have an HR Manager of a Supply Chain Manager, but surely schools buy stuff from outside? So they need to control supply chain.  They need to do finances, they need to do other things apart from education. Where there could be opportunities to place the unemployed.”

One of the problems is that we have tended to break the economy down into sectors, but certain positions or careers are multi-sector: “If I work in Finance, HR or Supply Chain, I am needed in every single organization. We need to think a bit differently.”

FNB’s major success is the fact that it is the bank that employs the most engineers. The other banks employ bankers. “What the FNB team decided, was it wanted to innovate. If we really want to innovate, the skills we need are design, is engineering, so let’s bring in engineers to help us re-engineer ourselves. Look where they are – the most innovative bank in the world. It just shows you. Sometimes we like to box people. Because we do that we lose out on opportunities, certain occupations. If I study law, I don’t have to work for a law firm, I can work in other environments as well. The police may need someone with a law qualification or NPO. There are opportunities, but because we are so narrow minded in terms of the way we used to do things people are losing out on opportunities to be successful and to build proper careers and alternative careers,” Meyer concludes.

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Carol has nineteen years’ experience as a professional writer, editor and case study writer. Her writing experience includes a stint as the resident Case Study Writer at the Wits Business School.


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