Although there are indus- try players such as the Southern African Institute of Welding (SAIW) providing training and, as such, career development for welding professionals, the gap between qualifications and competence levels in the industry remains, says SAIW executive director Jim Guild.
“This is not just happening with welding qualifications but across many areas of education and technology in South Africa. A decade ago, engineers and artisans would further their education by undertaking welding and inspection courses, usually after having gained experience in the field.
“Competence was of no major concern and there was confidence that qualified personnel would be able to do the job. “Over the last 20 years, however, the number of artisans and experienced personnel in the market has decreased substantially,” he says.
Guild adds that changes in labour legislation and reduced global competitiveness have caused many companies to cut back their involvement in training, resulting in many training facilities closing down.
In addition, he says the falling value of the rand has made it more lucrative for trained and skilled people to work abroad.
“To add to the skills drain, government decided to abandon the proven apprenticeship route for training artisans, although it has now been reinstated,” notes Guild.
With fewer artisans in the country and increasing numbers of younger people seeking qualification opportunities, he states that the level of competence after qualification has been falling.
“School leavers wanting to enter the welding industry need a qualification to find employment so they attend courses, pass the exams, gain a qualification and enter the job market without adequate experience.
“The objective of feeding the market with skills and competence has become increasingly difficult. “When the newly qualified youngsters enter the job market, industry tends to give them too much responsibility before they have been given the opportunity to build up experience,” he explains.
He adds that the definition of competence varies from industry to industry, but, in general, it is somebody who is capable of doing a specific job well, regardless of the working conditions, and who can take prompt corrective measures to eliminate any mistakes or rule out disasters.
“A competent person is knowledgeable of applicable standards, is capable of identifying work requirements and can identify potential hazards relating to a specific situation.
“A qualified person may have the required level of theoretical knowledge for a particular job but it is the added surrounding practical knowledge and experience that raises employees’ levels of competence. Most competent people are qualified, but not all qualified people are competent,” asserts Guild.
Despite the challenges, Guild says the outlook for training has improved to some extent in the last few years.
“Many of the large companies that used to be well known for their excellent training programmes are reinstating their facilities and are taking in significant numbers of trainees.
“Some of the approaches which were pushed by government and quasi-government organisations have been found lacking, but government has become more flexible and the apprenticeship route for artisans has been re-embraced,” he states.
Even so, there are still significant challenges with regard to national training facilities.
The increased flow of young, inexperienced people qualifying through diploma courses has to be considered a positive trend, says Guild.
He adds that it is important that industry employers apply common sense and check the curriculum vitae of a new recruit to ensure that, if necessary, he or she is placed on a suitable development programme and not compelled immediately to accept more responsibility than is appropriate to their level of experience and competence.
“The SAIW also has a responsibility to improve the recognition of competent personnel and we are currently considering how this can be done. “The most common approach is to adopt a personnel certification programme.
“These have built-in requirements for verification of experience and continuing professional development requirements. There are some well-known international certification programmes for welding quality control personnel, but these are not great models to follow, as they carry large assumptions of prior knowledge and the associated training is minimal,” he explains.
The pool from which these schemes can draw is small and, to be sustainable, the schemes have to lower their standards of entry, says Guild.
“There are solutions though and we are exploring the best of these through the industry support committees, which guide the institute in the development of its training, qualification and certification systems.
“There is much industry debate about the gap between qualification and competence and all input that can be given to the institute will help direct us to the best solution,” he concludes.