Skills gap demands an education overhaul

South Africa’s skills gap is now critical — and things may get worse, unless there’s a complete overhaul of the country’s education system.  

“There are massive skills gaps in SA,” says Gill Connellan, chairperson of the Association for Skills Development in South Africa.  “Some of the biggest problems we have are in the fields of natural sciences, engineering and trades, as well as in management across many sectors.  It is a crisis in the sense that the problem has been escalating for many years and the initiatives aimed at solving the problem are mired in politics and bureaucracy.”

Earlier this year, Manpower South Africa’s Annual Talent Shortage Survey found that engineering and skilled trade positions are the most difficult to fill. Over the past nine years, the survey — which involves a sample of 750 South African businesses — has found that, in addition to engineering and skilled trades, the most difficult positions to fill are:  accounting and finance staff, teachers, engineers, management/executive (management/corporate), drivers, sales representatives, secretaries, pas, administrative assistants and office support staff, technicians and restaurant and hotel staff.  

When asked why they are having difficulties filling jobs, 52% of employers cited environmental or market factors, 47% cited a lack of technical competencies or hard skills and 46% cited a lack of available applicants or no applicants at all for those positions.  

Thirty percent of employers cited the lack of industry-specific qualifications or certifications in terms of skilled trades as a challenge, while 26% cited a lack of candidate experience. Nineteen percent of employers identified organisational factors as an issue, while 15% cited a lack of industry-specific qualifications and/or certification in terms of professionals as a challenge. 

“With unemployment in the country remaining high, it is surprising that employers continue to have difficulty filling positions,” says Lyndy van den Barselaar, the managing director of Manpower SA. “South Africa’s continued skills deficit is being compounded by a lack of technical skills, which is having a negative impact on employment across many sectors of the country’s economy. Furthermore, there is a high level of poverty amongst South African youth, leaving millions unable to pursue secondary and tertiary education or training, which presents a challenge in terms of their skills development and employment prospects.”

Connellan points out that the problem starts at school level and is acute by the time young people leave school. “There are not enough properly trained teachers.  There is not enough focus on regular attendance at school, particularly at high school level.  When children in high school fail more than two years in a row, they are automatically passed up into the next grade.” 

There is also a distinct separation of the school system in South Africa, she adds.  “(There is) one smallish, privileged system and one very large underprivileged system. The facilities in many schools and colleges are so appalling that it is extremely difficult to provide an environment to nurture young minds, and the equipment and resources available to many schools and colleges is very limited and often outdated. The quality of teaching is highly varied from one system to another and corporate business tends to focus on recruiting candidates from the small, privileged group of students/candidates.”

Consequently, although South Africa spends at least four times more on education for young people than other African countries like Kenya and Malawi, on average it takes a young South African four times longer than students from those countries to complete a degree.  

“The pool of potential candidates to be offered skills development in a variety of careers is absolutely huge — more than 50% of our unemployment is youth unemployment — and most of them have no hope of ever entering the formal work sector because even with a matriculation certificate, they are barely functionally literate, because the standard of teaching is so poor in most underprivileged areas,” says Connellan.  

According to Van den Barselaar, one of the problems identified by many employers is the gap between the skills taught in education and training courses and the skills needed in the workplace. “University or college leavers with tertiary education certificates often lack any practical experience, and workplaces are in great need of people with [both] qualifications and experience,” she says.

The rapid evolution of technology used in the workplace means some previously skilled individuals may need to undergo additional training, and that staff must be constantly up-skilled, she adds.

Van den Barselaar says the popularity of learning a skilled trade like plumbing or carpentry has decreased, so skilled tradesmen and women are hard to find. “Brain drain continues to be a problem,” she adds.  “Skilled individuals are choosing to work abroad.”

It’s a vicious cycle. “There’s an ever-increasing gap between the rich and the poor — South Africa already records the highest Gini coefficient in the world,” says Connellan.  “There are scarcities and problems in virtually every sector.”  

Connellan said the water crisis the country is facing is linked to the skills shortages.  “We simply don’t have enough competent scientists, engineers and generally able managers (which includes the politicians) to proactively deal with the crisis. The problem was already evident 15 to 20 years ago, but has not been properly anticipated,” she says.

Van den Barselaar points out that the skills gap not only makes it difficult for businesses to operate effectively, but also means that the country’s unemployment rate remains high.  “This impacts negatively on the economy in the long run, in terms of annual GDP growth and the number of economically active individuals. It also means that we will eventually have to import critical skills from abroad, in order to meet the business demands,” she says.

What is the way forward?  “Training and up-skilling of current and future employees is critically important. Additionally, the youth must seek out opportunities for learning such as internships, courses and training programs where possible. The public and private sector need to work together to ensure that reputable training programs are put into place, to close the education/workplace gap.

“Investigations could be made into getting skilled professionals from other countries in on contract to train current and potential employees locally. This will allow these trained personnel to then pass on their skills to future generations, and create a positive cycle of skills transfer.” 

Connellan says that South Africa needs to follow examples of schooling and education systems that have shown dramatic and sustained turnaround when faced with similar challenges.  “Two examples are South Korea, which has the best turnaround successes and Singapore, which has best practice from grassroots all the way through labour and into government,” she says.  “One other example from Africa is Botswana where the government, although extremely poor, placed huge resources into education and the result is that it is possible to receive a high quality, free education from grade one to the end of university.”

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