Hauwei puts money where skills aren't

The view that multinationals set up companies in African countries just to benefit from the continent without giving back in terms of wealth, development or skills transfer is still rife on the continent.

One Chinese company is working hard to change that view by transferring skills back into South Africa in the field of telecommunications engineering.

Huawei Technologies, the global Chinese telecommunications network solutions and equipment provider, has made it a priority in terms of its corporate social responsibility programme to upskill previously disadvantaged black Africans. More than 1 100 people have been trained in South Africa since the establishment of Huawei’s training centre in July 2008.

Ross Gan, Huawei’s global head of corporate communication, told the Mail & Guardian his company keeps the future needs of countries and consumers in mind whenever it operates in a foreign country.

“In some regions there is a huge shortage of skills. If you install equipment and leave, who is going to maintain it?” Gan asked. It was for this reason, he said, that Huawei established full-time training centres in several African countries including South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, Tunisia and Angola.

Huawei’s customer database boasts top South African telecoms companies Telkom, MTN, Vodacom, Cell C and Neotel. On a continent in which the cellphone market is the fastest growing in the world, Huawei was challenged by the skills shortage, requiring a quick catchup to deal with the rapid changes in technology.

Two trainees told the M&G that much of the technology they are being trained in at Huawei is new and innovative. Sibusiso Mthimunye (23) studied electrical engineering at Tshwane
University of Technology (TUT), specialising in digital technology.

He has been working on the team that made it possible for Telkom to launch its new mobile network, 8.ta. “From what my fellow students training at other companies tell me, it is nothing compared with what I’m getting here. They are not really satisfied with the training they are getting.”

Mthimunye said that even though Huawei specialises in communication technology and he had studied electronics technology, he has still fitted into the training and has gained skills. “The bottom line is that we all work on programmable devices. The focus is to assist us to get our qualifications and learn more.”

Another trainee, Mothuse Kgaphola, also 23, studied electrical engineering, majoring in telecommunications, referred to as high-frequency technology at institutions of learning. She is undergoing training in data configuration for 3G, network installation and bringing up 3G
sites.

“There are always new things to learn. They assign you an experienced mentor, but if I need help from someone else’s mentor, I can always ask them.” Huawei has full-time professional instructors and engineers conducting the training at its training centre in Woodmead, Johannesburg.

Huawei’s regional public relations manager for sub-Saharan Africa, Shalate Davhana, said the company saw the need for skills training in telecommunications engineering after serving several customers in the country and identifying the shortage.

“At present none of the universities of technology specialise in telecommunications and only a fraction of communications covers basic telecommunications,” Davhana said. She said some universities offer telecommunications as a postgraduate qualification, but practical training is limited.

Most of student trainees in Huawei’s internship programme come from previously disadvantaged tertiary institutions including TUT, the University of Venda (Univen) and Durban University of Technology (DUT). The focus of the training, said Davhana, is on core and wireless networks. Huawei also trains employees from fixed and mobile operators (carriers) and subcontractors.

“We prioritise engineering skills in the field of telecommunications, but offer a variety of training in telecommunications, project management and ‘soft skills’, which includes fundamental management courses and basic management principles,” Davhana said. All five students trained by Huawei last year are employed by the company, but some from the 10 admitted this year might be released to the market should Huawei not be in a position to retain them.

“Depending on Huawei’s resource requirements, some students may be offered further contracts following the one-year internship programme,” said Davhana. She said Huawei plans to increase the number of annual admissions to its training centre to 5% of the company’s staff complement in South Africa.

Huawei’s other method of improving the skills of South Africans is to localise the staff at its offices. Davhana said the current staff complement is 68% black South Africans and 32% shared among white South Africans and non-South Africans.

“Localisation encourages a much better and quicker response to our customers. Locals have a better understanding of the local market and we can therefore serve our customers’ needs better,” said Davhana.

Discussing ITWeb’s recent information and communications technology skills survey, done in conjunction with the Joburg Centre for Software Engineering at Wits University, stakeholders said there is “a disconnect” between academia and business.

Industry players believe that university graduates are emerging into the job market lacking key skills and once they have acquired those skills much of it has become obsolete because rapid changes in technology create traction between available skills and new requirements to suit the new technology. Trainee Kgaphola confirms the concern: “I have the theoretical background, but when you get to the actual workplace, it is a different story”.

The 2009 telecommunications sector research report, released by Landelahni Business Leaders, said technology is the single biggest driver for the skills shortage globally “because it causes this redundancy of skills every three to five years due to the increasingly rapid rate of changing technology”.

Chief executive officer Sandra Burmeister said: “The fact is that massive investment has been made in broadband technology, such as the undersea fibre-optic Seacom cable, and that it needs to be maintained with additional skills, which South Africa doesn’t have,” said Burmeister.

The Landelahni report said South Africa trained 4 305 telecoms engineers between 2005 to 2007, averaging 1 435 a year. This was not enough to meet the demand from business, said Burmeister.

She said another important point to consider is that convergence of technology requires the integration of skills across a wider range of industries and the rapid rate of change in technology results in South African companies competing for skills in a global market, requiring an “ongoing traction” of suitably skilled individuals in new technologies.

Last week Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma praised Huawei’s investment in South Africa, acknowledging the contribution the company has made to individuals. “Huawei Technology has established one of its few research and development facilities in South Africa, through which South Africans are able to access employment opportunities in addition to benefiting from skills development programmes,” the minister said.

Huawei first entered the South African market in 1998 and 12 years later the South African branch serves as the headquarters for the company’s sub-Saharan region. By being the fastest-growing cellphone market in the world, Africa has added to the increasing demand for high-end information technology skills as consumers move into the age of technologies, such as data and video, using mobile phones.

Huawei ‘s innovative culture makes it a suitable company to transfer skills. Founded in 1988 in China, Huawei’s products and solutions are deployed in more than 100 countries. It serves 45 of the top 50 telecoms operators in the world and puts 10% of its revenue into research and development each year.

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge

Mmanaledi Mataboge is the Mail & Guardian's political editor. Raised in a rural village, she later studied journalism in a township where she fell in love with the medium of radio. This former radio presenter and producer previously worked as a senior politics reporter for the Mail & Guardian, and writes on politics, government, and anything that gives the disadvantaged, poor, and the oppressed a voice. Read more from Mmanaledi Mataboge

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