It is widely accepted that South Africa's artisan shortage is a chronic problem and that the training initiatives to build a new cadre of artisans have failed, thus far, to fully address the backlog.
But the newly formed Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), as well as other key actors in the skills-development sector, have assured Engineering News that there is light at the end of the tunnel and that artisan development remains a key priority in the country.
Significant movement has been made towards the plan to increase trained artisan numbers in the country and 2010 has been identified as critical period, particularly as a new Sector Education and Training Authority (Seta) landscape emerges.
DHET director-general Mary Metcalfe tells Engineering News that there has been a definite increase in artisan output over the past four years and that progress has also been made in addressing the legacy of artisan dearth.
However, she acknowledges that the challenges associated with the need for an intergenerational transfer of knowledge and skills persist, while young artisans are also finding it difficult to secure opportunities for practical workplace experience.
The country, therefore, needs experienced artisans, including those in retirement, to assist in the processes around artisan training, including assisting at the college level and in establishing an artisan moderating body.
In fact, input and experience of creative engineers is required to lead the development technicians and artisans that are able to interface with the new technologies that have emerged as a result of the world's transition to a more knowledge-based economic order.
"If we can improve the inefficiencies in trade testing, get the appropriate support of the relevant Setas, streamline the multiple pathways, and retain skills development as a national priority, we will overcome this skills challenge," Metcalfe avers.
The development of the DHET (created in 2009, when the former Department of Education was divided into the DHET and Basic Education, with the DHET also taking over the skills-development functions from the Department of Labour) has emerged as the principle custodian of the artisan training push.
Through the merger, DHET has responsibility for colleges and the universities as well as the training functions and institutions that fell previously under Labour, such as the National Skills Authority, the Setas and the National Qualifications Framework.
It has also been asked to integrate The Presidency's Human Resource Development Strategy for South Africa (HRD-SA), previously the Joint Initiative on Priority Skills Acquisition, or Jipsa, which is chaired by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.
In theory, therefore, the DHET offers the country new possibilities in education and training by improving the linkages between education and training policy and the professional bodies, associations, business and higher education institutions that act as implementation agents.
While it is still arguably to assess the success, or otherwise, of the realignment, there are already some encouraging signs, particularly on the artisan front.
The figures from the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services Education and Training Authority (Merseta) show favourable growth, projecting an upward trend in the numbers of trained artisans for the metal industry.
Since 2003, the artisan apprentice intake has almost tripled and last year saw an encouraging continuation of that trend.
The figures declined in 2000, when the new Seta system was implemented and the industry got used to the changes, but Steel and Engineering Industries Federation of South Africa (Seifsa) skills development executive Janet Lopes suggests things are settling into a constructive rhythm.
"A system is inevitably destabilised when major changes are made to a policy. A readjustment had to be made to the change in language from artisans to learnerships, which caused some confusion in the industry and resulted in many companies holding back from training," explains Metcalfe.
The role of State-owned enterprises also changed, when these enterprises became accountable to their boards in terms of financial performance, some of their social contributions, historically specific for the field of artisan training, declined.
She adds that some may argue that the change in the historic culture that had previously dominated the artisan field may also have placed strain on training programmes. In other words, what was once a white male dominated field, now includes all races, all ages and even women.
Seifsa reported that there were 5 930 apprentices in training at the end of 2009 for the metal industry and ascribes this growth largely to the accelerated artisan training programme, which has allowed the traditional apprentice training companies to take on more people, receiving better support and grants from Merseta.
Lopes also highlighted the role of Jipsa in providing the co-ordinating framework necessary to kick-start the acceleration of artisan training.
"The work started by Jipsa has been incorporated into the HRD-SA, and made many people pay attention to the artisan skills training challenge. There has also been less ambiguity about what artisans are needed for and the severity of the need for them in certain industries," she says.
Jipsa's public-private approach towards artisan training has also already showed development.
The HRD-SA, which is the successor to Jipsa, the HRD council and working group have received the closing report from Jipsa and are now tackling ways to take on outstanding work.
However, a question that remains unanswered is how many registered artisans in the country are available and qualified for employment into the industry, and what is being done about keeping track of these numbers?
National Business Initiative (NBI) director of human capital focus area Makano Morojele notes that something South Africa tends to overlook is tracking and monitoring the progress of the available artisan skills in the country, and, in order to do this, a comprehensive, reliable repository of data is needed.
At the time of Jipsa's end, Morojele says that there were 47 000 artisans registered, but some of these skills were still in training, and even this number needed to be reviewed.
She says that a critical issue that the Jipsa work confirmed was that a reliable and comprehensive data system was lacking.
For example, although the target set by Jipsa in 2007 to have 50 000 artisans qualified and ready for employment within three years was not met, it was discovered after much research and surveying of the demand for the skills that even 50 000 artisans would not be enough and the numbers should have been hiked to at least 80 000.
She says that a lot more preparatory work is needed before the institution could even begin to look at how many artisans were required in each trade.
Part of this preparatory work will involve setting up a system that could review the figures from each economic sector's skills development plan, on one hand, and simultaneously continue developing the training process.
"Companies and government need to find a way to work on both problems at the same time, continuing with training, as well as putting the other intricate pieces into place. It all starts with understanding the complexity of the training system, as well as the interconnectedness of the process," she says.
Metcalfe says that the process of finding out how many artisans are needed is under way and the DHET has started a two-phase process, beginning with a sector plan to see how many artisans are needed in the country for each industry sector.
In November this year, the focus will shift to cost cutting occupational needs across each of these different sectors.
Metcalfe says that the relevant Setas are working on their assessments based on information from government's own inclusive growth targets.
"The Setas are working from information, such as the industrial policy action plan, to determine how many of these scarce skills are needed immediately and how many are projected to be needed in future, so that we can plan for them to be developed," she says.
Lopes says that the long-awaited Skills Development Amendment Act, which came into effect last year, tackles this challenge by introducing a number of significant changes.
One of the primary changes made to the Act is the major focus on artisan training and this includes the establishment of a national artisan moderating body, which will take over the role of registering artisans, overseeing the assessments of artisans and will, essentially, keep track of the number of artisans in the country.
Another key challenge for employers during the economy's recovery from the financial downturn will be to maintain the skills development initiatives running within their companies, especially in the area of artisan training.
Lopes says that when larger employers, in particular, slow down on artisan training, the result is a severe skills shortage and increased wage pressure.
The department, along with the National Skills Development Strategy three, is currently agreeing with each of the Setas on their targets for artisan training for the next three years to five years.
Private Sector Contribution
The DHET has started work on smoothing out the functional problems related to trade testing.
It also appeals to the private sector to provide the much-needed experiential learning young artisans need to be incorporated into the industry and placed in suitable jobs.
The private sector is doing its part to assist in overcoming the artisan shortage.
Many companies, including groups such as Sasol, Eskom and Trasnet, have committed to injecting millions into the acceleration of artisan training.
One of the more recent signs of encouragement has emerged out of KwaZulu-Natal, where cement manufacturing company NPC-Cimpor, has signed a R10-million artisan training deal with black-owned artisan training academy Ikhaya Fundisa Techniskills Academy (IFTA) that will see up to 200 learners being trained each year.
The engineering learnerships include: instrumentation, millwright, fitting and turning, welding, boilermaking, motor mechanic, diesel mechanic, earthmoving equipment mechanic, tractor mechanic, fork-lift mechanic and auto electrical training.
IFTA director Sean Jones says that there will also be an extension into driver operator training in the future.
The facility, which will be known as the NPC-IFTA Technical Training Centre, will be provided by NPC and is situated near Port Shepstone, in KZN. It will have the capacity to accommodate up to 100 learners at any point.
"This is an important venture for us and we regard it as a milestone for the company. Being able to set up accommodation for 100 learners and to properly train them, at least starts to make something of a dent in the shortage of artisans we are currently facing in the South African industry," says NPC training manager Seema Sukhoo.
DHET Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said earlier this year that a lack of structured workplace experience is the main constraint to meeting South Africa's skills development objectives.
"I must therefore appeal to employers with a proven track record in engineering-related artisan development to open up their workplaces and take on additional learners in artisan and trade-related apprenticeships, learnerships and structured work-experience programmes to enable them to meet the requirements for trade testing and achieve artisan certificated status," he says.
The Minister promised to take a personal responsibility for the acceleration of artisan training, as well as for the creation of a national register for artisans.