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From the field

Education to enable industry development

Our industry in South Africa is constantly complaining that their workers have the wrong (or low) skills. Yet based on my own experience, many manufacturers prefer to appoint people from the street and then train them in-house on the job. This saves the business money and bargains the wage down, but at the same time makes it very difficult for the enterprise to respond to technological change. And when all your workers are at a low skills level, the technological advancement of the firm is almost completely dependent on the genius (!!) of the entrepreneur and the middle management. This is a risk for our industry as we do not embrace learn-by-doing enough as our competitors are doing because we do not trust the ability of our workforce.

The South African government itself acknowledge the importance of jobs intensive growth, especially aimed at lower skilled workers. I sometimes wonder if our government has given up on its education system, but then the large and continued investments in the overall education system seems to suggest otherwise. The education policy has a strong focus on vocational training, but learners still prefer to queue at our Universities despite the best attempts of the minister to highlight the value of Further Education Colleges and the recent investments into the vocational system in the country.

While the importance of making sure that our large numbers of low skilled workers do get some form of employment and further education, I wonder if we do not need a stronger dual focus on other forms of education and more skills intensive job creation.

Also, I wonder if we do not need to strengthen our ongoing education aimed at people currently employed. I know the Skills Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) are supposed to do this, but from the businesses that I work with it seems that this is a frustrating option – the skills levy is basically treated as a tax. The SETAs are also focused very much on basic skills and not on deep technological skills.

As long ago as 1987, Lawrence and Schultze criticized the European education system with its focus on apprenticeships that provides rather specific skills to rather standard and mature technologies. These technologies become obsolete very fast in times of rapid technological change. Furthermore, these skills do not help our enterprises to get ahead, they simply help the lower productivity part of the economy to catch up. Many other scholars have come to the some conclusions about Europe’s education system, advising them to follow the US model of equipping graduates with a more generic education that helps people to adapt to a more dynamic work and technological environment.

For in case you wondered, South Africa is undergoing huge technological change. With the energy problems this technology intensification is accelerating as enterprises try to upgrade to lower energy manufacturing technology.

To get ahead we need to invest more in creating middle and higher skills capacity, more or less what the learners are sensing. From an economic policy perspective, we need to support the enterprises that are in the more knowledge intensive industries. They still absorb lower skills workers, but at least in these enterprises their development paths are more varied and more secure. While at the job-intensive low skill industries these lower-skilled workers are vulnerable due to South Africa’s poor cost competitiveness on many basic manufactured goods. At the same time, we have to continue and even expand upgrading our workforce with vocational training, if not for any other reason than to give people a deeper sense of pride and dignity.

References

Lawrence, R., Schultze, C., 1987. Overview. In: Lawrence, R., Schultze, C.(Eds.), Barriers to European Growth: A Transatlantic View. The Brookings Institution, Washington, DC.