Rethinking demand-led skills development in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Opening the 2019 National Skills Authority conference, Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor set the tone by stating that she hoped that it would be “outcomes-oriented” and based on concrete action and facts. She spoke passionately and directly about the skills development landscape in the country, and gave the skills development stakeholders in the audience plenty to think about.

The theme for this year’s conference was “Building a demand-led skills development system that focusses on inclusive economic growth”, and her keynote address raised several important points.

“We base a great deal of the work we do on the National Skills Development Strategy III as well as our White Paper on Post School Education and Training. These are the policy instruments that set our targets and shape our planning. Our purpose today is to identify and discuss practical steps to improve our skills training sector,” said Pandor.

She then recounted a story of how, when faced with international investors asking her about what the department does in its skills training, she had three points to articulate.

“My response was, I think there are three key areas. The first is that we need to pay very close attention to the issues of quality and excellence in our education system. The second point is we need to better align what we do in education to the requirements and the trajectory of the economy. There needs to be a better understanding and responsiveness to this relationship. The third critical area is we really have to look at is addressing our production of high-level skills – critical, necessary skills that are currently gaps in our skills rubric.”

Pandor asked how colleges and skills providers could move as swiftly as possible to accommodate the needs of the various economic sectors. She also questioned how different stakeholders could develop and implement a system to ensure that youths become entrepreneurs or enter employment.

Tying into the conference’s theme, the minister spoke of the department’s list of occupations in high demand. These are professions that show strong employment growth, or estimated growth, or occupations and fields that are experiencing shortages in the labour market. The list also speaks of cultivating skills in professions that are expected to be in demand in the future.

Planning for the near future is never certain, but with the global trend of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), or digital revolution, underway, there are certain skills that the department has identified as critical. “The 2018 list of occupations in high demand identified white-collar occupations in the ICT field such as ICT project manager, information systems director, ICT systems analyst, and software developer,” the minister said.

“Currently there are 11 universities offering programmes and modules in 4IR and the related fields of artificial intelligence and robotics. If we intend to take full advantage of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, all our universities and colleges should be offering courses such courses,” she said.

Pandor also problematised the idea of “demand”, by noting that opening TVET colleges across the country has led the department to think not only about national skills and skills for the global domain, but the needs of the local, community sphere.

She also said that, in comparison to many other countries in the world, South Africa has made critical gains in skills development. Importantly, she noted, the country has the resources to effect change in the skills, education and training sectors.

“We don’t have reason to complain about resource allocation. We’re talking of Setas and the skills system receiving around R15-billion annually, we’re talking of a university system where for support and financial aid to students for this incoming new financial year is at R30.8-billion. These are significant sums that are being investing by our country in our skills and are a signal that we’re advantaged, and our challenge is how we develop value from the resourcing,” Pandor said.

The minister spoke of the middle-ear transplant that was conducted at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital the day before the conference began. “The surgery at Steve Biko Hospital highlights the immense innovative capacity that we have in South Africa. It’s a ground-breaking surgery and the first ever in the world,” she said. She also brought the audience’s attention to other high-level and digital skills success stories, such as the Square Kilometre Array (Ska) radio telescope initiative.

The minister also said that South Africa was on track to meet the National Development Programme (NDP) goal in terms of doctoral graduates and has made great strides in increasing university research output.

“In general, we have seen more and more young people acquire skills. First, doctoral graduates have increased. We are going to reach the NDP target of 5 000 doctoral graduates by 2030 — we are halfway there now. Second, our universities and research councils have increased research output — up to 18 000 publications — in the last few years. Third, the graduate throughput rate is steadily increasing, and the student dropout rate is steadily decreasing for all qualifications.”

The minister’s speech did more than highlight landmarks in the skills development landscape; the address provided the framework to understand the following plenary sessions and commissions, as well as unpack what “building a demand-led skills development system that focusses on inclusive economic growth” really means.

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Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy
Youlendree Appasamy is a freelance writer and journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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