Chemical sector needs specialist skills

Although many industrial sectors are suffering from a lack of sufficiently-qualified personnel, the chemicals sector is one that has specific skills requirements that need to be addressed if its potential is to be realised.

The chemicals industry sector education and training authority (Chieta) is tasked with managing this process by helping to develop skills in the areas where they are most needed. In its 2012 update to its five-year skills plan, the training body identified that the most urgent skills requirements lie within the qualified professions.

“Overall, employment trends in the sector are in decline. The main areas where opportunities for employment still prevail are in high and medium skilled occupations. At the same time, employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates emerging from training programmes currently available,” Chieta reports in the skills plan.

The greatest need is for pharmacists and related occupations to grow the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector. Engineers of almost every variety are needed to build and maintain the capacity the industry demands.

The skills plan
Chieta also recognises that general artisan skills such as electricians, millwrights and fitters are needed, and more specialised training for tinters, flavourists, architectural glass specialists and glaziers must also be provided to meet future needs. 

The skills plan recognises that the structure of the skills demand has evolved over the past 20 years as a result of technological advances.

“It has already been established that there is a global trend of employment contraction in the chemical sector, yet the absolute number of highly-skilled workers has increased from 21 069 in 1990 to 23 552 in 2010,” states the report.

The percentage of highly-skilled workers has therefore increased from 8% to 14% in the 20-year period. Mid-level positions have grown slightly to 28%, with semi- and unskilled workers suffering the brunt of the decrease in manual labour.

“The future will see this trend not only continuing, but accelerating if the South African sector is to compete globally. In Europe, the chemical sector is the second most skills intensive sector (following the information and communications technology sector) with half of all employees having achieved higher education (Patel 2008).

“Therefore there needs to be a strategic priority placed on high level skills in the future in order to sustain competitiveness.”

Bridging the gap
​To this end, Chieta has identified priority qualifications it will focus on to bridge the gap between demand and supply of these skills. Chemical engineers, artisans and operators form the bulk of this focus, based on the input the training authority has received from industry. 

Within these disciplines, Chieta will be looking to develop specialist skills, such as chemical engineers specialising in explosives, tinting specialists for surface coatings and flavourists in the specialty chemicals industries.

The demand for skills in the industry is on the back of the sector’s increased output since 1990, which Chieta says grew from R108-billion to R286-million in 2010. Despite this growth the industry has shed in the region of 71 000 jobs to around 165 000 jobs currently.

“The falling employment is contrasted by the steady increase in the real value of capital stocks which grew consistently over the two decades. It is clear that through mechanisation, investment in capital was preferred to labour in order to increase output.

The fact that real remuneration per employee consistently moved in the opposite direction to total employment shows that the changes in employment were at the lower end of the pay scale.

“As lower-paying jobs are created, the average remuneration falls and the opposite when employment contracts. Thus in the last two decades, and more than likely for the foreseeable future as well, the most vulnerable employees are and will be the semi and unskilled workers in the sector.”

Chieta does not expect this picture to change significantly over the next five to ten years, although a recovery from the recession may lead to slow growth. It expects that the industry is more likely to invest in capital equipment to adjust for underinvestment as a result of the recession, but that a slight uptick in labour may be seen as businesses look to increase output by increasing the workforce.

“It is possible that these two forces will be balanced by the likelihood that the initial increase in employment will be driven by atypical forms of employment which allow for a more flexible workforce. In the longer term some of these workers will become formal but the greatest investment and thus the primary driver for the growth in output is likely to remain capital,” Chieta predicts.

Any large-scale job creation in the industry will require direct interventions to either stimulate new sub-sectors that require capacity building or incentives that promote job creation over capital investment.

The industry training body suggests that partnerships between academic institutions will be key in developing R&D capability as well as bridging the gap between skills supplied by institutions and those demanded by industry. The skills debate is one that is going to rage on for some time, with the greatest emphasis being on the ability of the basic education structures to produce school-leavers with the necessary qualifications.

Chieta has identified the constraints in these feeder systems, yet is unable to influence those outcomes beyond its work with education and training institutions to identify the essential skills the chemicals industry needs.

Although this article has been made possible by the Mail & Guardian’s advertisers, content and photographs were sourced independently by the M&G supplements editorial team. It forms part of a larger supplement.

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