Given the multifaceted nature of South Africa’s automotive sector, intra-industry dialogue and collaboration are crucial to advancing the industry’s ability to provide high-quality products and much-needed employment in a rapidly evolving world, says Retail Motor Industry Organisation (RMI) associational director Hedley Judd.
With locally manufactured vehicle sales having maintained an average of about 600 000 new units a year, and a proliferation of component brands – locally produced and imported – in the automotive aftermarket space, he notes that there has been a significant dilution effect in the market, increasing competition and driving down profit margins across the board to unsustainable levels.
“The value of products has, thus, become paramount, with customers realising that cost and quality go hand in hand and suppliers simultaneously becoming increasingly aware that providing consumer protection against the unreliable products touted by unscrupulous sellers is integral to surviving in the market.”
Key to ensuring such high-quality goods is the implementation of industry standards, which Judd highlights requires significant collaboration between industry players and the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).
He points out that, while the SABS is the statutory body mandated with promoting and maintaining the quality and safety standards of products and services, it requires significant input from industry experts to formulate official standards. Judd, thus, urges the automotive industry to use this important opportunity to participate in its own regulation.
However, he notes that wariness of inciting any penalisation by the Competition Commission of South Africa has led many players in the automotive industry to eschew attempts to work cohesively to find solutions to industry challenges.
He states that resistance to collaboration is rife in such a competitive environment, which stunts the intra-industry communication necessary to drive the improvement of quality and safety standards, which would, in turn, promote the development of the industry as a whole.
“The onus is on industry to come together and discuss the technical aspects of its business and develop the standards needed to advance its products and processes in a nonbranded, noncommercial manner.”
Judd notes that an increasingly important area requiring the application of clear standards is vehicle modifications, which are monitored by the Department of Transport. Although the Road Traffic Act provides a generalised clause that guides the policing of vehicle modifications, such as suspension height, replacement rims and tyres and wheel track width, this requires a more detailed breakdown as modifications become more advanced and prevalent.
Investigating, outlining and controlling all the possible vehicle modifications that can be made and determining in which contexts they are safe and permissible, is a large and onerous task, he says. “Should the policing of modifications grow more stringent, it could, however, impact on the automotive aftermarket and, thus, require more attention in due course.”
A Willing System
Technological advancements, such as electronic braking, fuel cells, tyre design, improved fuel efficiency, self-driving features and Big Data diagnostics are, moreover, affecting the automotive aftermarket. Judd mentions that they influence not only the types of parts that are in demand but also their longevity, which impacts on vehicle service intervals and the level of professional specialisation required to service vehicles. This, in turn, has implications for training and development in the sector.
“There is an attitude of denial among some providers in South Africa’s automotive aftermarket, who feel that their experience and expertise are sufficient and unquestionable, but there is also a sector of willing professionals, who acknowledge that keeping up with advancements . . . requires a subsequent advancement in their tools and methods.”
Judd highlights that, with fewer available pathways to train journeymen through apprenticeship-style programmes, the RMI introduced its Master Technician Training in 2012; however, he notes that this has had a lower than expected take-up from industry, reflecting a lack of willingness on the part of both learners and educators to advance skills development.
“With technology changing as rapidly as it is and demand for skilled technicians growing in the local automotive aftermarket, the industry should aggressively approach learning opportunities like this.”
The RMI has also initiated the development of a soft skills education programme, which aims to enable employees to progress from entry-level sales positions to more senior managerial positions in the automotive aftermarket industry over a minimum period of three years.
“Crucial to the success of this programme is the identification of willing educators, in the form of business owners who provide the opportunity for learners to advance their skills, and willing learners, who are genuinely concerned with advancing their careers.”
Judd points out that as the automotive aftermarket industry represents one of South Africa’s largest employment sectors, a lack of prioritisation of education, and technical and soft skills, in industry is, thus, deeply problematic.
“By providing a clear career path, coupled with a clear learning path, we hope to drive the creation of willing learners who will approach their roles with enthusiasm and interest and, in turn, drive the quality of products and services offered in the industry and the growth of the sector as a whole.”
The RMI is in the process of securing funding for the soft skills programme, and Judd is confident that it will shortly prove successful in addressing the real need for business skills upliftment in the automotive sector.
“These skills are imperative for helping businesses manage and overcome margin pressures in a challenging market, rather than succumbing to them,” Judd concludes.