/ 28 November 2014

How can we meet our skills needs if we don’t know what they are?

Disconnections: Vocational education will not
Disconnections: Vocational education will not

In April this year, the department of higher education and training released for public comment a government gazette titled the National Scarce Skills List: Top 100 Occupations in Demand. This document emerged from the call in January’s White Paper for Post-School Education and Training to have a more centralised system for the identification of skills needs in the economy and society.

The document argues: “Identifying current and future skills demand as accurately as possible is extremely important if the goals of the National Development Plan (NDP), the New Growth Path and the Industrial Policy Action Plan are to be achieved.” After identifying this purpose, the document defines some key concepts, outlines its method for determining scarce occupations and provides a list of the top 100 occupations in demand.

Few would disagree with the statement: “South Africa needs skills.” We agree that they can play a vital role in human and community development and that the education department can play a vanguard role in supporting skills development.

However, after carefully reviewing the National Scarce Skills List, we are compelled to offer this critique: the conceptualisation of “skills” in the National Scarce Skills List is too narrow, insufficiently inclusive and based on problematic theoretical assumptions; its methods are biased; and its analysis offers a selective and, in some cases, factually untrue presentation of data.

To support this critique we compare the education department’s scarce skills publication with a recent analysis published by the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Seta (Merseta). We chose to review the Merseta report because more than half of the top 20 occupations “in demand” included in the scarce skills publication are also included in the Merseta list.

Misleading and narrow
The education department’s scarce skills publication begins with a bait and switch: skill, a general concept, is defined in terms of the requirements of formal occupations. A simple definition of “skill” is “the ability to do something well; expertise”. A skill can be any ability: fixing a broken leg, thinking conceptually, singing, writing a paragraph, or childcare.

This broad definition of skill is jettisoned in the scarce skills publication. Instead, the department’s publication considers skill only in terms of “skill levels” and “skill specialisations” required for formal occupations identified in the Organising Framework of Occupations. This is our first critique: that skill, a broad and important concept in education, should not be constrained to the consideration of formal occupations only.

The publication’s conceptualisation of skills is further narrowed by pairing it with two other terms: “scarcity” and “demand”. The publication’s title makes clear the understanding of education department: a skill is scarce when an occupation is in demand. According to the publication, scarce skills “refer to those occupations in which there is a scarcity of qualified and experienced people”.

We emphasise these two points because such distinctions are important: the implications of compiling a scarce skills list suggest not only that we can predict occupational demand, but also that higher education skills development should respond to occupational demand and that skills not included in the Organising Framework of Occupations are unimportant.

If the intention of the education department is to “project skills demand” in a dynamic labour market, then by equating “skills” with “formal occupations” the education department, in this publication, unfortunately does students and aspirant workers a great disservice.

In a 2009 journal article, scholars A Carnevale, J Strohl and N Smith draw on United States labour market data to demonstrate the folly of equating skills with occupations: “The US creates and destroys jobs faster than any other economy in the world … Every three months, nearly 14-million workers will be hired and 13.6-million will leave their current jobs. More than half of those actions will happen because a new job was created or a job disappeared … Every year, more than 30-million Americans are working in jobs that did not exist in the previous quarter. Many of the occupations workers have did not exist five years ago.”

In the modern economy, occupations (and skills required for occupational competency) evolve, become extinct and emerge sui generis. Yesterday, South Africa needed textile skills (then China came); today “soft skills” are in demand (because of a growing service sector); and tomorrow, “if all government’s planned strategic infrastructure projects materialise”, there may be a “scarcity” of Merseta-related skills, the Merseta’s 2013 analysis says.

Many institutions of higher education will find the department’s equating of skills with occupations troubling. Several university initiatives (for example, the grounding programme at the University of Fort Hare and the transdisciplinarity research led from the Mapungubwe Institute) offer counterexamples to the education department’s discourse. Both these initiatives privilege the values of humanistic and liberal arts education – broad exposure to varied sources of knowledge across academic and practical fields.

The tone of the scarce skills rhetoric and other education department initiatives, such as the “decade of the artisan”, indicate that South Africa is in dire need of semiskilled workers and artisans.

Labour-market analysis completed through the Labour Market Intelligence Partnership points to a different story.

Of changes in the labour markets from 2001 to 2012, one such analysis published last year says: “High- and medium-skilled occupations such as managers, professionals and service and sales workers have seen significant employment gains. In turn, craft and trade workers, operators and assemblers experienced no significant employment growth. The economy experienced a declining proportion of medium-skilled workers in the primary and secondary sectors.”

This analysis, pointing to growth and wage growth in the tertiary sector economic activities, suggests that liberal arts and pre-professional degrees may be valuable after all.

The education department’s scarce skills list acknowledges that many skills are transferable: the publication notes that chartered accountants may work in other fields. The list considers this phenomenon to be an aberration. We argue differently. Not only do individuals often have skills in many fields, but many skills are also transferable across occupations and fields. In the modern economy, it is possible for an individual to have multiple careers: an engineer may attain a postgraduate qualification and then move to a job in corporate management or a government regulatory body.

Equating skills with formal occupations offers many drawbacks. The education department could conceptualise skills differently – for instance, in ways related to know-ledge and cognitive processes rather than markets and occupations, and preferably in smaller quanta. A well-written job description could offer an example.

In a democratic society, it is also important to ask: “Who is not included when we are defining skill and scarcity?”

The interests of several groups do not appear to be represented in the scarce skills publication, including workers in the informal sector, unemployed, underemployed and casually employed workers, households in poor areas, volunteers and women, and individuals working in religious, spiritual health, cultural, culinary, arts and community development professions. In the dominant discourse, skills shortages (to the extent they actually exist) are defined by the market.

A more inclusive approach to determining skills shortages would be to identify democratically social development priorities and educational interests as well as citizens’ “nonmarketable” activities and priorities. Such an activity could result in a different list of scarce skills. The education department’s narrow and noninclusive conceptualisation of skills is intimately related to the problematic theoretical foundations on which the skills discourse rests.

Joblessness: Education’s fault?
Since the early 1960s liberal economic approaches to studying the relationship between education and the economy have coalesced around a philosophy of human capital theory that privileges the productive aspects of education and those aspects that advance “employability”. The New Growth Path, the NDP and the department’s white paper are grounded in the rhetoric of human capital theory.

Salim Vally and Enver Motala have contended that human capital theory argues in favour of empirically unsound assumptions about the relationship between education, skills and the economy. Simply put, supply-side skills development has not been shown to create new jobs and grow economies.

According to V Wedekind’s recent article, this critique has been ignored by post-apartheid education policymakers: “Vocational education and its lead institutions, colleges, are seen as fundamental to solving a problem [unemployment] that is not primarily an educational one.

“There is a continual anxious hand-wringing over the failures of the colleges and the vocational education and training system generally, followed by a new set of reforms that repeatedly aim at the same thing: making the colleges more responsive through curriculum reforms, capital investment and training.

“The latest proposals are not significantly different to previous reforms and it is likely that they will fail again because they do not and cannot address the underlying problems [of society].”

Wedekind indicates that the disciples of human capital theory can only understand unemployment as a failure of education: a scarcity of skill, a mismatch, a gap. That the existence of a “skills gap” is the main cause of unemployment or at least a main contributory factor to joblessness is now accepted by many as the gospel explanation of South Africa’s employment challenges. All other factors, particularly exogenous economic factors, have tended to be treated as secondary to this fundamental problem.

The scarce skills publication fits neatly into the “skills gap” discourse and places the problems of society on the doorstep of education. But does the discourse reflect the reality?

Biased methodology
The methods, consultations and literature review sources used to create the scarce skills publication privilege government-articulated priorities and those of industry and capital, and the use of data favouring professional occupations. A ranking scorecard is used to determine demand for a particular occupation based on an analyst’s review of these particular sources.

Some source documents appear to identify “priority” skills by simple exhortation (such as the NDP and the Human Resource Development Council report, Production of Professionals). Other reports draw on labour market data or stakeholder consultations. Let us accept, for the moment, the bias and methodological issues used to determine the scarce skills list. Let us also ignore, for the time being, our analysis, which points to the structured nature of high unemployment in South Africa. Accepting these limitations, let us simply consider the education department’s publication to be an exercise in identifying “scarce occupations” using existing education and employment data.

We can start with a broader picture of the labour market. Unemployment data is well known. In a labour force of 20-million people, 11-million are employed in the formal sector, five million are unemployed and more than four million are employed in the informal, agricultural or households sector.

This year unemployment, narrowly defined, stands at about 25%, and the measure of unemployment that includes discouraged job seekers is above 33%, according to Statistics South Africa. One source the scarce skills publication refers to is Job Opportunities and Unemployment in the South African Labour Market, produced by the department of labour.

This publication states the number of job vacancies identified by the labour department between April and December 2011 (60?433 in the 2011/2012 fiscal year) as well as the number of terminations (more than 500?000). When we compare unemployment data with vacancy data, we see mismatch and scarcity in a different light. Identified job vacancies are equal to about 1% of the number of unemployed people and the number of terminations is an order of magnitude greater than the number of vacancies.

A close review of the Merseta’s 2013 analysis identifies similar issues: “In the face of very limited recovery from the economic recession, and the increasing challenges facing companies competing against rising levels of imports, the demand for new skills is dropping. For 2012 … slight employment losses were the reality that emerged.”

An earlier Merseta report indicated that because of employment losses “people are hanging onto their jobs and labour turnover rates are relatively low”. In 2012, the Merseta sector employed 653?800 workers. In 2013 a Merseta projection model indicated that the sector “will require a total of 4?170 people to fill new positions created in the sector and 14?540 people to meet replacement-demand needs”.

Notably, though mandated to create a “scarce skills” list, Merseta prefers to use the term “priority skills”: “Since 2012 industry has no longer unanimously supported the concept of ‘scarce skills’. Because of the very limited recovery from the economic recession, and the increasing challenges facing companies competing against imports, the demand for new skills has dropped to levels only slightly higher than those required to cover replacement demand.”

Reflecting on its methodology, the Merseta report notes: “The development of [former] ‘scarce skills’ lists … did not, in fact, reflect genuinely ‘scarce occupations’ with any level of accuracy.” It adds that “the priority skills list presented in the [scarce skills publication of] 2012/13 was not scientifically confirmed or quantified”.

Instead, the list was based on industry stakeholders “intimate knowledge of working in the various sectors” and that added to the list were “skills that their companies were struggling to find, which are difficult to train for and which are very important for the growth of the sector”.

Several passages in the Merseta document appear to contradict the scarce skills list: “scarce” is changed to “priority”; “priority” is determined using qualitative methods; and Merseta addresses job loss and slow job creation in ways that appear unrelated to “skill”.

Merseta does, however, comment on the “perceived poor and variable quality of newly qualified technicians and artisans”.

What is happening in post-school education? In 2011 universities enrolled more than 250?000 students, and about 46?000 graduated in science, engineering and technology. In the same year, further education and training (FET) colleges enrolled 27?000 students in engineering and nearly 7?000 students in manufacturing, engineering and technology.

Not to be left behind, Merseta enrolled more than 6?000 individuals, and produced about 4?000 graduates in its learnership and skills programmes. In the same year, more than 100?000 New Certificate (Vocational) students were enrolled, many of them in engineering studies courses, in public FET colleges, according to education department data.

The dissonance between the department’s scarce skills publication, the Merseta analysis and post-school education data is disconcerting.

The scarce skills publication claims that “electrical engineer” is the number one scarce skill/occupation, but we don’t know whether this is because we have a severe shortage in the number of electrical engineers, because Merseta stakeholders identify “electrical engineer” as a priority skill (that is, the demand may be for a small number of highly skilled people), or because the education department has identified electrical engineering as a “high salary and wage growth” profession.

Education department data show that the education and skills “pipeline” is producing a lot of engineers. Does this mean that next year our shortage of “qualified” electrical engineers may turn into a surplus?

What is clear is that filling the 60?000 vacancies the labour department identified or the 19?000 vacancies Merseta projected – in short, responding to market-identified vacancies – is an inadequate policy response if government policy seeks to respond to the needs of the more than seven million unemployed and discouraged workers in South Africa.

Post-schooling institutions and education department leadership can, and should, play a leading role in human development, community development and skills development.

We hope this critique identifies the severe problems with the education department’s policy trajectory and creates space for a broader and more democratic discussion of skills and skills development.

Siphelo Ngcwangu is a researcher in Wits University’s Centre for Researching Education and Labour, and David Balwanz is a United States Fulbright scholar visiting the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Education Rights and Transformation. This is an edited version of an article to be published in this year’s second issue of the journal Post-Schooling Review, edited by Salim Vally and Enver MotalaSkill, a broad concept in education, should not be constrained to the formal occupations only