Skills shortages and unemployment bite SA

Simon Gungqa and dozens of other hopefuls stand at a busy intersection, their eyes watchful, appealing to motorists to hire them for a few hours’ casual labour in a country scarred by extreme unemployment, coupled with a crippling shortage of skills.

It’s a dispiriting daily ritual for 26-year-old Gungqa, a school drop-out and sometime gardener with no regular work, who forms part of what South Africa’s deputy president recently described as the country’s poorly educated, untrained ”army”.

At a small community employment centre nearby, programme manager Tania Bownes sighs as she contemplates the 300 domestic workers and glut of gardeners on her list of jobseekers. But there are only a handful of carpenters, stonemasons and seamstresses — and all the plumbers and electricians have been snapped up.

”We have a vast pool of labour but a real lack of trained workers,” said Bownes, whose WorkNow project tries to find jobs for unemployed black people living in an impoverished suburb of Hout Bay, an otherwise wealthy town. ”Skilled artisans are like gold.”

The paradox in Hout Bay, a coastal resort near Cape Town, is witnessed throughout South Africa as it struggles with estimated 40% unemployment coupled with shortages in almost every profession and craft — top-level managers, teachers, engineers, bricklayers and welders.

The government wants to: train 50 000 artisans by 2010 — requiring an annual increase of 7,500; more than double the number of students in higher levels of school and training to one million; and dramatically increase the number of engineering graduates. It is also drafting retired people back into the labour force and trying to persuade South Africans working abroad to return home.

Even so, it will have to rely on imported skilled workers to meet deadlines for stadium construction, transport and other infrastructure projects for the 2010 Soccer World Cup, as well as provide services when the anticipated hordes of visitors arrive.

Although there is a worldwide shortage of engineers and artisans, South Africa is particularly badly hit because of the legacy of apartheid, which reserved quality schooling, training and jobs for the white minority and condemned a generation of black people to drudgery.

The 2001 census showed that of the 45-million population, at least four million South Africans of 20 years old had no schooling at all, while another four million had limited schooling at primary school level — about 18% of the population in all.

The government has made big strides in education and training since the end of apartheid in 1994. But critics maintain that some of its policies — including affirmative action, which prioritises non-whites in awarding jobs — have worsened the skills crisis.

”The country has cut off its nose to spite its face,” John Kane-Berman, director of the South African Institute for Race Relations, wrote in a column in Business Day. ”The massive imbalances between black and white in the possession of skills have their origins in apartheid. A wiser government would have done everything possible to retain scarce skills despite their whiteness.”

Kane-Berman – whose organisation last year estimated that about one million white South Africans had left the country in the past 10 years — said there should be more attention to the shortcomings of current education and training policies.

”We see a lot of certificates in travel and tourism,” said Bownes, of the job bank. ”But there is a need for more practical training so they can go out and fix the toilet tomorrow. There may seem to be a lot of glamour in a head office but the money is in the practical work.”

Bownes says although many young people in the community are eager to be trained as carpenters or plumbers, they don’t have the money for the bus fare to Cape Town training centres and would lose desperately needed cash if they were in school instead of working casual jobs.

Young people are disproportionately hit by South Africa’s unemployment, which is officially 26%. In reality it’s closer to 40% because the government figure doesn’t include the informal sector or those who have given up looking for a job.

Deputy President Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was named last year to spearhead two programmes designed to halve unemployment by 2014 and boost skills development.

At a press conference last month, Mlambo-Ngcuka said that about one million new jobs had been created in the past two years, but the poorest communities remained too marginalised to benefit.

”We don’t … have a comprehensive intervention to deal with those people. Of all the things we have to do, this is the one I am most worried about,” she said. ”It is also the one that is the most difficult. It is also one that lingers on from what apartheid was about.”

There is ”an army of people we must take care of sooner rather than later”, she said.

Michael Mafanya, who dropped out of school ”many years ago” and had problems spelling his own name, was part of that army.

Barefoot, missing a front tooth and aged beyond his 37 years by a lifetime of disappointment, he lined up at the Hout Bay intersection for casual work. ”I can do your garden,” said Mafanya. ”Or let me wash your car. I can do paving, or painting. Let me do anything.” — Sapa-AP

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