SA’s skills cliff face

A RECENT experience provided a stark illustration of the worsening skills problem South Africa faces.

Two months ago, South African universities were requested to provide the names of three staff members to participate in an international capacity development programme co-ordinated by the University of Bath and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. Criteria included that they should be younger than 45. I am 44 years old and was shocked that in our department of about 50 people, I was the only one who met the age qualification. Seventy percent of my university colleagues will soon retire.

This is a microcosm of the ageing of skilled people in South Africa.

Insecure future

The last generations of South Africans that include a significant proportion of highly skilled personnel, whether employed in the public or private sectors, are reaching retirement. The large numbers of academics, doctors, dentists, welders, engineers, plumbers and electricians of the 1950s and 1960s moving into retirement will bring South Africa to a skills cliff.

We are not developing replacement skills of the same calibre or to the same extent as 20 years ago, and this will dramatically undermine the scope of sustainable growth.

The elementary research I have been doing reveals that South Africa has a boutique defence and security innovation industry which is growing steadily. Other than some degree of policy uncertainty and the relatively weak currency, the biggest threat to this industry is the shortage of skills.

In any economic sector, there are certain silos of state entities and functions where depreciating skills will have a greater impact. For the security sector, these include the aerospace and defence sector; organisations like the Civil Aviation Authority, which governs the registrations and operational licensing of all aircraft that fly in South African airspace; or bodies such as the National Conventional Arms Control Committee, which governs the export of military technologies.

The South African National Planning Commission released a diagnostic document in 2011 which attributes the lack of job creation in part to poor schooling and insufficient knowledge. Renowned educationist Prof Jonathan Jansen, together with other experts, supports this analysis.

Artisans create jobs

The issue is, nonetheless, that policies are required that will help South Africa to develop the technical skills it needs to run manufacturing plants that will process the country’s rich raw resources into finished products. In a nutshell, South Africa needs South African expertise to keep the economy in the country.

Proper education can save us from the skills cliff by providing the employment market with graduates who are employable and/or trainable.

The country is in dire need of artisans for manufacturing plants. Artisans create jobs for unskilled labour as well as for university graduates. The unskilled labourer will physically push a wheelbarrow carrying pieces of wood to the artisans. The artisan will assemble the pieces of wood to complete a piece of furniture and pass it to the university graduates, who will take care of marketing and supply-chain management. One artisan can create an average of 10 other jobs. Unfortunately, between 1994 and 2009, the African National Congress neglected the technical colleges.

Unfortunately, South Africa is in a phase of multi-decade regression in the education sector. The implications are evidently catastrophic and are increasing in momentum. I do not believe South Africa, as a country, appreciates the impact the neglect of the education system will have on the country’s future, because a highly competent and skilled proportion of the population has carried the economy and overcome our human resources shortfall.

However, this section of our population is ageing and is not being replaced.

Low-margin exports

South Africa is de-industrialising, as manufacturers close due to a lack of technical expertise and competitiveness. The reduction in skills has contributed to the country being forced to export raw materials that are then processed into finished goods in other countries and imported back into the country. The export of raw materials yields low margins for South Africa and the country has suffered serious losses in beneficiation income.

The provision of skilled technical workers and managers through better education will play a crucial role in turning the economy around by shaping the country into a manufacturing, services and knowledge economy.

Countries such as Japan, Malaysia, Germany and Singapore are not endowed with rich mineral resources as South Africa is, yet they are prominent players as manufacturing and knowledge economies because they have both knowledge and technical skills.

If South Africa wants to avoid the skills cliff and to improve its socio-economic situation, it urgently needs to pay more attention to skills development by improving all levels of education.


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